A CIA operative known only as the Protagonist (John David Washington) is given a case to prevent a third world war. Working with another agent, Neil (Robert Pattinson), he must infiltrate the operation of Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) by going through his art dealer wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). The war the agents are trying to prevent is one that won’t be fought with conventional or nuclear weapons; this war will be fought using the flow of time. Someone has figured out a way to control entropy, changing the normal order of cause and effect. If a government or terrorist group could observe the events of the future, they could counter any efforts to stop their plans. The past, present and future are at stake.
Trying to explain the story of “Tenet” is like teaching a squid how to write. It’s complicated, messy and I don’t think I have the intelligence to grasp it all. Writer and director Christopher Nolan has crafted a bizarre and labyrinthian story of technology, power and greed with the fate of the world in the balance. I won’t be surprised if audiences are deeply divided in their opinions on the film with some thinking it’s a masterpiece while other find it taxing and incoherent. Both will be correct. Much like cause and effect are reversed in the film, feelings about it will also travel in both directions. While struggled as I watched the movie and the alternating passage of time, sometimes occurring simultaneously, I felt the door to a level of understanding crack ever so slightly as the events played out. I happen to be one that thinks “Tenet” is brilliant.
That doesn’t mean it is flawless. The dialog can be dense when characters are discussing the finer points of entropy and how the rules of one person travelling in one direction while the rest of the world is moving in another. And perhaps is was the speaker set up in the theater, but I had a hard time understanding what characters were saying from scene to scene. Maybe it was the ambient background noise on the soundtrack mixed with the various accents, but some of the dialog was garbled and lost to me.
Otherwise, the movie is also unbearably loud. The action scenes with guns, explosions and car crashes left my ears ringing. I would have chocked that up to my individual theater, but I’ve seen other viewers post how near deafening the volume is. This appears to be a deliberate choice by Nolan and the studio to crank up the sound and beat the audience into aural submission. If you have especially sensitive hearing or suffer from hearing loss, you may want to bring ear protection just in case.
Have you ever had a TV show suggested to you and the suggester says, “It really gets good by episode 3,” or “The second season is where it takes off”? That’s kind of how “Tenet” is. Things won’t make much sense in the early scenes, and you’ll wonder if Nolan has let you down with a subpar effort. However, visuals you’ll find confounding will make more sense as you go through the story. By the end, scattered and random events early will finally become clear. Nolan has made a movie that is the epitome of the conspiracy theorist cork board with pictures, headlines and random pieces of paper covered in scribbles connected with push pins and red string.
While the story takes some time to make sense, the performances will hold your interest until your brain catches up. While the film is filled with characters, our four main players dominate the screen and ably so. John David Washington keeps his character’s emotions in check, just as a season CIA operative would. While he’s facing an unprecedented situation, Washington’s Protagonist rolls with it. While some may criticize his performance as dull, I found his ever in control operative to be a source of calm in a temporal storm.
Debicki, Pattinson and Branagh provide all the emotion for the film. Debicki’s Kat is a woman in a loveless marriage to a cold and cruel man holding their son as leverage over her. Her flares of anger and pain ring so true they caused me to wince. Pattinson provides a bit of comic relief as Neil. Allowed to speak with his British accent, Pattinson’s Neil is droll and a tiny bit condescending while also being a master of understatement. Neil is the Protagonists fixer, gofer and sounding board. His role is to give the CIA operative the tools and materials he needs to do the job. Providing a laugh along the way is a bonus. Branagh’s Sator is a fairly standard villain but provides flashes of the madness and cruelty that make him rise above. Branagh slinks through some scenes like a python approaching his prey. In other scenes he’s brash and big like a bull elephant charging through the African plains. While the role doesn’t provide much meat on the bone, Branagh strips it clean and makes a meal from the part.
“Tenet” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language. There are fights, shootings and crashes of various types throughout the film. Gore is kept to a minimum even during a scene of torture. A 747 is crashed into a building. A couple of people are shot at close range. A person is beaten to death with an unusual object. Foul language is scattered and mile except for one F-Bomb.
The action scenes in “Tenet” are unconventional but thrilling. Some of them happen in regular time while others are going backwards. Some scenes have some of the characters travelling in one direction while other in the same scene are going backwards. Nolan filmed the actors doing the scenes forward and backward so he could splice the two together as seamlessly as possible. For the most part it works, but sometimes people are clearly running backward and then had the film reversed and vice versa. Those moments are rare and don’t ruin what is otherwise a very good film. I would have liked a clearer understanding of what’s causing the reversal of time and would also have liked a better reason for why the bad guys wanted to fulfill their ultimate goal. That said, “Tenet” is a brain-breaking sci-fi/action/thriller that, if you’re comfortable heading to the theater, should be seen on the big screen. Just remember to wear your mask.
“Tenet” gets four stars out of five.
Release schedules are still thin so my return to reviewing may be erratic for the foreseeable future.
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