Movie Review: Tenet
Christopher Nolan looks to recapture a memento of his past in palindromic Tenet, a movie that wrestles with itself in the moment but finds meaning when you read it backward.
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Elizabeth Debicki, Michael Caine
Directed by: Chris Nolan
Running time: 2 hrs 30 mins
Opens August 26, 2020 (Theatrical in Canada)
By Katherine Monk
To loosely quote one of the few explanatory chunks of dialogue in Tenet: I can’t really explain what you will experience. All I can offer is a gesture, where I interlock the fingers on each hand, and a word — “tenet.” If you’re intrigued, you’re already winning this game of thought tag. If you realized tenet isn’t just a word to describe belief, it’s also a palindrome, you may even be one step ahead. Or one step behind.
At this point, I’m tempted to write the entire review in reverse, and make a show of it all. But that might, quite justly, be read as editorial affectation. It might also suggest that Chris Nolan’s latest film is somehow academically precious, which might also be true.
The point is, it all depends on how you read it. Looking at the film in retrospect, which is the luxury of criticism, the film finds structure, social relevance and genuine meaning through a mental revision of the experience.
Watching it in real, linear time, in a brick and mortar movie theatre, surrounded by taped-off seats and a handful of other masked patrons who sanitized their hands and took their chances, was an entirely different mental experience altogether.
A sense of surreal angst was already hanging in the conditioned air, so the onslaught of an opening sequence showing an entire opera house being gassed while groups of armed men in masks and black battle fatigues surround the building to take someone hostage, feels readily accessible. What feels a little out of place is a scene of two men strapped to chairs in the middle of a train yard, being tortured as they’re asked to give up names. They don’t, but one manages to take a cyanide pill.
Turns out it wasn’t a cyanide pill. It was a deep coma pill. He’s rescued and given a mission to find out about some “ultimate weapon” that could end the world as we know it. Like I said, I can’t really explain it, all I can do is interlock my fingers — and ask you to ponder dovetailed timelines.
Yes, timelines. Tenet is a timeline movie, but instead of going forward and backward, things get “inverted.” Time, and all its possibilities, can be manipulated by some mysterious algorithm — allowing anyone with malicious intent to destroy humanity.
Think Avengers Endgame, only with Kenneth Branagh as a Russian oligarch instead of Josh Brolin as a computer-generated super villain.
Think Avengers Endgame, only with Kenneth Branagh as a Russian oligarch instead of Josh Brolin as a computer-generated super villain. And Robert Pattinson as a half-cocked sidekick to a relative unknown.
It’s almost as if Nolan is trying to go back in time to his earlier days directing, creating a small masterpiece like Memento instead of directing operatic tragedies such as The Dark Knight. There’s a palpable desire to give us a sense of intimacy through character, to make us care about what’s happening, even when we have no idea what’s actually going on.
That’s the biggest problem Tenet has: It’s hard to make sense of it while it’s happening. Even when you get the device, and things start to fall into place, the film resists an easy embrace because it’s working so hard to catch up to itself.
When it slows down long enough to let us absorb the characters, there’s a layer of tension there, too. We can’t really trust any of them, except by default. We’re not even sure who the hero is until there’s a declarative statement from the unnamed actor with all the screen time (John David Washington): “I’m the protagonist!”
It’s a pointy stab of meta that pops whatever balloons are left lying on the floor of this bar fight of a movie — a reminder that a lot happened the night before, some of it will make sense, but most of it will be forgotten.
Main image: John David Washington stars as The Protagonist in Tenet. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon.
To read more of Katherine’s reviews, check out the Ex-Press archive, or sample career work at Rotten Tomatoes.
THE EX-PRESS, August 27, 2020