‘Tenet’ Is Ambitious and Messy

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Christopher Nolan has, finally, released Tenet despite a pandemic and a global theater shutdown that forced him to move the film’s initial release from July to September. Was Tenet’s adamant devotion to the theater experience worth it and will enough people see the movie to ensure that it is a financial success? This remains to be seen. 

Tenet follows a spy, simply named the Protagonist (John David Washington) as he embarks on a high-risk mission to stop an organization known as Tenet. His identity is unknown and the audience is given very little to work with as for what his allegiances are, other than knowing that he is with the CIA. Many of the people he comes into contact with throughout the duration of the film have their own mystery surrounding them, in many cases only having a first name and some scant details about their activities in order to establish some relevancy or importance to the events at hand.

Upon the discovery of a new technology that has not yet been invented, allowing time and action to be inverted, the Protagonist seeks out people who will be able to help him get more information and prevent the catastrophe that will ensue if left unchecked. One of these people is Neil (Robert Pattinson) who meets the Protagonist and joins him in this mission. As time passes, Neil’s importance increasingly becomes clearer.

The villain here is Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian oligarch who is responsible for the newfound technology that allows him to influence and change events as he pleases. As the Protagonist learns about what Sator is doing, and how he is doing it, he is faced with the reality of having to learn a new set of rules in order to get the job done.

Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.

Laura, Tenet

Beyond a basic explanation of plot, which we’ve now gotten out of the way, Tenet, in many ways, escapes description or explanation. This is an incredibly messy and ambitious project that deals with the theme of time and the distortion of reality, which is something that Christopher Nolan loves to explore in his films. To his credit, Nolan does a great job in coming up with the idea and some of the mechanics of what is being dealt with, but the execution just falls short.

To the disdain of many moviegoers, Tenet is a loud adventure. Nolan’s experimental sound-mixing is a problem that has followed him for years, such as with Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises, and Tenet has received much of the same criticism with people saying it was difficult to hear dialogue over the mixing and score.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Ultimately, Tenet is joyless. It is so serious and straight-faced that there is no time to sit back and enjoy what is unfolding onscreen, because you are constantly trying to decipher the story, what people are saying, and if what you see is happening now, or then. This is in part due to John David Washington’s performance, whose delivery and cadence makes his character uninteresting and uninspiring.

Opposite Washington is Robert Pattinson, who at certain points in the film offers a brief respite from the seriousness. More than anybody else, he shows some heart and emotion but it is not enough to counteract the damage that has already been done. By the end, I was left wanting more of Pattinson’s performance and I would have loved to have spent more time with his character.

Tenet is not the film that it was promised to be and it is one of Nolan’s weakest so far.

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