In a more perfect world, this review would’ve been published roughly seven weeks ago, and I likely would’ve moved on from the naturally confusing escapist world of director Christopher Nolan. Across 11 films, the man has truly shaken up the realms of sci-fi, superhero fare and human drama in such a way that you’d be surprised to imagine how fluid his filmmaking approach has remained. Time naturally has a way of never being as consistent, and this challenging year has made that idea harder to pretend it’s not real. And the most unexpected takeaway of his latest film, the overdue Tenet, is probably just that idea. It’s perhaps what sets it apart from the rest of Nolan’s filmography. And stylish as it looks, intense as it appears, I hesitate over whether that can be a stated compliment.
The plot has been deeply shrouded in secrecy, and the marketing campaign has done a great job maintaining that. Even as the online community slowly picks up on the hints. In the slimmest of terms, Tenet involves an unnamed Protagonist (John David Washington) suddenly embroiled in a CIA mystery and all the odds and ends that come attached. As proven in the much-lauded prologue audiences first witnessed with IMAX runs of Rise of Skywalker, set around a botched job inside a packed house (something I’ve missed) at an orchestra concert, our Protagonist is a little rough around the edges. He needs to prove he won’t make the same mistake twice while hunting down a well-connected Russian oligarch with the most menacing name: Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). The reasons for which will not be disclosed here, but let’s assume they must be world-shattering if the Protagonist does not act.
Of course, he’s not alone. The charismatic Washington, having turned heads in the past with his game-changing performance in BlackKklansman, is the right man for the lead role. While he possesses the swagger, the acrobatics, and the hand-to-hand combat skills needed to sell such a lofty espionage tale at face value, he needs a little comic relief. His plucky partner Neil (an effortlessly hilarious Robert Pattinson) fills the need appropriately, if not a twinge tongue-in-cheek by the third act. Together, they are naturally unstoppable with their humorous back and forth. Were it not for the largely expensive set pieces, I’d have nearly been fooled into watching an accidental Lethal Weapon reboot.
Allies in this cat-and-mouse game are few and far between and may not be all that easy to trust the more we learn about them. There’s the mysterious Priya (Dimple Kapadia), an experienced mystery woman with her fingers in just about everything, including detailed information. Approaching her takes a brilliant piece of stunt work, one of many moments I’d find to build legend status with most film scholars before long. Next, we have the Protagonist’s scientist friend (Clémence Poésy), a specialist with the film’s deceptive warning: “Try not to understand it.” A little unexpected, but that is Nolan for you: always leading the viewer off onto a wide number of tangents that appear to make sense but may not always connect.
Finally, there’s the damsel in distress, Sator’s estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). She’s the distraction that our Protagonist clearly does not need while he and Neil are seeking to invert time for the greater good. What I would not have given for her character to be further expanded upon, because she’s the fiery lava rock eager to fight but in need of the right arena. And being wrapped around Branagh’s arm without her approval, that poses an issue. Debicki, the Aussie native who last managed to thrill me alongside Steve McQueen’s winning ensemble in Widows, carries a rather heavy load of stress atop her shoulders. And she’s doing all this with a near-silent grace, a stiff upper lip, and claws retracted awaiting the perfect time to strike. When it hits, the results are somewhat what we were bound to expect.
Nolan clearly likes to up his game every time, and Tenet is a great example of such an elaborate filmmaking genius always building. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel that maybe the recurring theme that’s been Nolan’s constant in all his films finally got the better of his imaginative mind. For its smarts, sharp wit, and desire to challenge the traditional espionage thriller, what should’ve been the selling point causes Chris to miss the mark at first. It’s well below the conservatively high marks given to the war epic Dunkirk or the enthralling space adventure Interstellar. To me, that’s still high-end Nolan, two of his finest hours. But there can be such a thing as going too big, moving too quickly, and thinking too high concept. Tenet is regrettably a victim of all three. At 150 minutes, it’s like a five-course meal with all the food groups. Too much of a good thing in the middle of said meal, and the flavor slowly fades.
The level of confusion only deepens as the Protagonist is clearly defying the Scientist’s recommendation. We’re just as caught up as he is, in the future to keep a faulty past timeline intact, chasing Sator down at breakneck speed. A nearly unsolvable puzzle made more difficult to follow, and very hard to hear, by what makes the rest of Nolan’s work unmatchable. We have the usual hallmarks: strikingly scenic visuals, like an endless fleet of boats and windmills whose purpose eludes me. Plenty of practical effects and stunt work proving the tactile sense of Inception has stuck. The standard Michael Caine cameo. Ludwig Goransson’s bombastic score lending to a sound landscape that caused perhaps the most painful of headaches and more than one line of dialogue lost. And easily its greatest asset, the detailed eyes of Hoyte van Hoytema (Ad Astra) keeping everything in frame with precise, dizzying effect.
It certainly helped and hurt, in dual fashion, that I was watching this near-masterpiece on an IMAX screen. At one of only two theaters currently open in Washington state within reasonable travel distance. No joke, it took a train, two cars, a bus, and two miles walking to reach the theater. And despite Nolan somewhat unable to keep his story on a balanced focus, and my physical state post-screening, I can confidently say it was worth the trouble.
For its faults, Tenet is enjoyable enough to warrant eventual repeat viewings. All bolstered by a strong cast and the level of expert technical proficiency we have come to expect. Next time I see this gem, however, it will be from home, where I’ll predict the less serious of film fans are likely to wait. You really must be enough of a Nolan fan, or a serious cinephile to make a necessary road trip. I feel if, like Nolan, you care about the moviegoing experience to keep it from extinction and keep a mask (and earplugs) on at all times, then surely it will all be worth the indulgence. Please embark safely. (B-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Tenet is currently playing only in theaters; the nearest open locations are in Olympia and Lacey. Once again, please be safe if planning a road trip. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggested references, and brief strong language; 150 minutes.