Time only travels in one direction, and always at the same pace. No matter how long our pandemic year feels, no matter how much we might regret our mistakes, its direction and pace are as certain as our deaths. That does not stop Christopher Nolan from toying with that certainty; Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk warped our sense of pacing. What about time’s direction, though? What if someone could pass through time backwards? Tenet is an attempt to grapple that question, and the answer is even more confusing than it sounds.
In a recent interview, Kenneth Branagh (who appears in the film) said reading the Tenet screenplay is like solving a crossword puzzle. That sounds like exaggeration for effect, but is more revealing than Branagh intended. For those who like crossword puzzles, there is a sense of relief or accomplishment when you solve them. There is no real emotional connection, except for maybe a vague sense of frustration when there is one clue that is beyond your grasp. Watching Tenet is like that: a film with improbable symmetry that is meant to be solved, not felt, so parts of it are downright perplexing. To like this film is to submit to Nolan’s designs, and ignore traditional cinematic satisfaction.
It all starts simply enough. John David Washington plays a nameless protagonist, a spy who is told of a threat from the future. The key to unlocking this threat is Andrei (Branagh), a Russian arms dealer. In order to connect with Andrei, the Washington character and his handler Neil (Robert Pattison) perform wildly complex heists and chases. Early scenes are little more than an excuse for eye-popping stunt work, like when the spies use inverted bungee cords to catapult themselves onto a skyscraper. Another key figure is Andrei’s wife Katherine (Elizabeth Debicki), an unhappy woman who is trapped by her husband’s fearsome nature. All these elements converge until the protagonist has no choice but to do something drastic.
Nolan seems to understand that on at least one level, the plot does not matter. Perhaps multiple viewings would unlock Tenet‘s mysteries, but there are countless lines of exposition that are indecipherable. Like Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, many characters speak with masks covering their mouths. A key scene of spycraft takes place during an elaborate catamaran chase, one where the crashing waves are louder than any dialogue. I started to get the sense that Nolan was needling me, with each impregnable line signaling it is easier to go along for the ride.
In terms of visual spectacle, the “ride” of Tenet is frequently stunning. A jet crashes into a hangar, for example, and there is an inventive car chase where the good guys have to steal plutonium out of truck while it is moving at top speed. Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shoot all this with crisp colors and exotic locales, hopping from one country to another. The sound design is also satisfying, with Washington’s kicks and punches landing with an audible crack. After months of watching films and television on my flatscreen, it was luxurious to take in a film this loud and gorgeous.
What assists the film in these scenes are our shared understanding of the spy thriller genre: we know how fights, chases, heists, and betrayals are meant to unfold. At a certain point in the film – probably the halfway point – Nolan’s script inverts everything. Stick with me here: we watch John David Washington pass backward through time from his point of view, so while he moves forward, everything else unfolds in reverse. This is not time travel in the sense that Washington hops into a DeLorean, but he is a new kind of time traveler nonetheless.
This conceit is undeniably cool and makes sense in the immediate moment, but when Nolan applies that complex principle to narrative or action, it gets too cute for its own good. The climax of the film is a “temporal pincer move”: one wave of soldiers travel backward through time, while another travel forward, with both arriving at the same critical point. There is no suspense or stakes in this battle because there are no shared rules: they only make sense in Nolan’s head, so disengagement is the only reasonable response. I stopped caring about the temporal pincer move, and that was after hours of remote emotional distance. There is a halfhearted subplot about how Katherine terrorizes Andrei, and while Branagh chews through the scenery, Nolan cares little about anyone’s interiority. They are ciphers for endless exposition, and star quality is the only reason they have any dimension.
Up until now, there has always been an emotional core to Nolan’s films. In Inception and Interstellar, there is a yearning for family. Memento is like that, too, except it is fractured through the hero’s desire for revenge. Family is not essential to Dunkirk, but it gets an assist from history and the looming threat of Nazism. Tenet is too complex for all that; the film pauses to explain the threat from the future multiple times, and it still leaves unresolved questions. Pesky things like narrative and character development only get in Nolan’s way, to the point where I cannot help but feel his next film should abandon storytelling altogether. Maybe he should write textbooks, not screenplays.
Editor’s note: The only way to see Tenet is in a movie theater. Our reviews are not tacit endorsements for going to the movies. We feel that criticism is more than a consumer recommendation for an entertainment product. It is a debate about art, ideally providing insight and context, and that discussion should continue. If you make the safer decision to skip theaters for now, we hope you return here when Tenet is available on streaming platforms.