Tenet is every bit as expansive, bombastic, polished and bewildering as you might expect of a new Christopher Nolan film. A blockbuster filmmaker who’s never shy of putting faith in his audience, here he’s made a film that whilst is as ambitious as anything he’s done before, might just be the most perplexing entry in his filmography to date.
Of his past works, it’s Inception that this feels closest to, both stylistically and thematically. But whereas that film lays out the basics of its rules and layers its complexities on top throughout, Tenet instantly asks more of its viewers, pushing you into the deep end from the get-go. We open with a walloping bang, in the midst of a blistering siege on a Ukrainian opera house. John David Washington’s CIA operative works to rescue an artefact but winds up being taken captive and tortured, with his only option of escape coming in the form of a cyanide pill. And so he attempts to take his own life rather than risking leaking information. Yet it turns out that the whole operation was a test of his allegiance, and he wakes alive, well, and soon to be thrust into a mysterious plot which he must unravel. World War III is on the horizon, and a new time inversion technology has surfaced; it allows for bullets to hurtle back into guns, for people to retrace their footsteps in reverse, and for both history and the future to be rewritten. Catastrophe is inevitable, we’re told.
Told, that is, but not necessarily shown. Or at least not immediately, not with any real clarity. We’re drip-fed information on the potential power of the technology, though it doesn’t become explicitly apparent until a significant way through the film. In the meantime, simply grappling with the mechanics of how the time inversion works is a mindboggling task all on its own. Walking us through this is John David Washington’s lead, known only as “The Protagonist”. We know only as much as he does, which is to say very little initially, and by design we also know very little of what drives him beyond his duty. Washington is convincingly heroic, but his character is yet another unknown in a film full of unknowns, as is his co-agent Neil, played by the effortlessly cool Robert Pattinson.
Accusations of being a cold filmmaker have been levelled against Nolan (something you only need to point as far as The Prestige or Dunkirk to dispel), and for those pushing that particular narrative, the lack of emotional grounding for two of Tenet’s three lead protagonists will support that idea. But it’s with Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat that the film finds its emotional footing. As the beaten-down wife of Kenneth Branagh’s Russian villain Sator, Kat longs for freedom from his violence and oppression, and for the safety of her son. Debicki deftly moves between Kat’s determined front, the fragility and desperation just beneath the surface, and the strength that ultimately provides one of the films most satisfying moments. Opposite her, Branagh is a perfectly despicable antagonist, if a touch one-note.
It’s from a technical standpoint that Tenet is at its best. Action scenes play out with characters moving both forward and backwards through time, making fist fights a brutal dance routine, and car chases unpredictable carnage. A setpiece in which Nolan crashes an actual Boeing 747 is one for the highlight reel, but truly that’s just the icing on the cake when it comes to the sensational stunt work. All of which is given terrific weight by the sound design, bullets blasting with belting ferocity (or hurtling back into their gun’s chamber with a gratifying “thunk”). The volume is ratcheted all the way up here. Meanwhile, Ludwig Göransson delivers a thumping electronic-heavy score worthy of Nolan’s frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer (who sits out a Christopher Nolan film for the first time since 2006’s The Prestige), the pulsating music cranking the tension effectively, or winding back on itself to reflect a change in the flow of time.
Late on, Branagh’s Sator says “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”; honestly, I’m not sure that I did, but I do know that it’s a film well crafted enough for me to want to puzzle out its pieces. A film which will benefit from repeat viewings, that will spark conversation, and that undoubtedly was put together with the shared cinema-going experience firmly in mind. And really, I’d expect nothing less from Christopher Nolan.
Rating (out of 5):