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I, a lifelong, hardcore Nolan fan, just don’t know how I feel about TENET, and I don’t know if I’m ever going to.
It’s weird, because in the five days since seeing it (and I’ve been lucky enough to see it twice already), I’ll find myself in moments thinking “oh my god I love it”, and then a minute later thinking “Chris, what the fuck”.
And I don’t really know how to break that down.
The scale, scope, ambition, spectacle and concept are all there, and they’re all impossibly exciting when in full swing. Few things get me going more than when Chris is in practical set-piece mode and he’s letting his composer absolutely rip across some magic blockbuster moment I’ve never seen before (AND GÖRANSSON’S SCORE DOES INDEED RIP), but in between all that, and there isn’t all that much of it, there’s a story, and there’s characters, and just… man, what the fuck is going on here.
I’m totally embarrassed to admit this, but when I walked out of this for the first time, I had literally no clue what was actually going on for the two-and-a-half-hours I sat there for. Honestly, how embarrassing; a Nolan fanboy, not being able to keep up.
But like…(*sigh*). This might be the most challenging I’ve ever found a film to follow. Scene-to-scene, moment-to-moment, I just had no grasp of where we were or where we had to go, and more painfully, what the stakes were in any given scene. Even when I had the “what”, I almost never had the “why”. It all felt like one tempo, one level of emphasis, one level of importance, and I’m fine with complicated, but even the most complicated story in the world needs a rhythm. That Shepard tone story structure that’s been around since Batman Begins just isn’t at play here.
TENET IS WORDY TOO; characters talking about other characters we never know, about things we didn’t see them do, and as if that tell-don’t-show approach wasn’t tricky enough, I lost at least twenty percent of that dialogue BOTH TIMES to an utterly incomprehensible sound mix. I honestly could not tell you a single thing anyone said in that opening sequence under those masks beyond “we live in a twilight world”.
Second time round I tuned in way more aggressively and managed to crack into most of it, but was struck by the fact that, even after I was able to follow along, I couldn’t vibe with the fact that this is essentially a pretty simple story told in the most impossibly convoluted way.
Inversion? That’s the easy part. It’s the actual beat by beat plot that left me scratching my head. Why were they here? What did they need? Why did they need that? What does it do?
TENET is like the anti-DUNKIRK; where I feel that DUNKIRK was cinema distilled down to it’s purest, most elemental form¬— image and sound, purely visceral, no hand-holding required (even if I do love the flow of Nolan’s expositional jargon in INCEPTION & INTERSTELLAR)— TENET felt like… god it hurts to say this… a first draft script, a story finding the most complex ways to do the simplest things. There’s a plethora of scenes dragging out threads that could be handled in half the time. A McQuarrie Mission: Impossible this is not.
And I understand that’s probably the point: to be a labyrinth puzzle-box of a secret agent caper, but when that box finally unlocks in TENET’s final minutes, well… I found myself asking “is that all there is?”
I know few people feel the same way here, but Chris has always been an intensely emotional filmmaker to me, someone who marries creative concept to tangible human emotion; not many movies provoke the kind of insane tear-duct leakage I get throughout INCEPTION & INTERSTELLAR, but with TENET, I just had… nothing. A satisfied “oh” and that was it.
I don’t even feel like there’s a whole lot from a thematic or ideological point to grapple with this time either as it was packed up pretty neatly into two or three lines throughout the film and the rest of the talking was just… talking.
And uh, spacial geography here… oof. The third act carnage was… I don’t want to reveal anything but man, I dunno about the approach to that major set piece hey.
It’s just so goofy too sometimes. People always say he makes some Choices™ but I’ve never found that personally until here.
Yacht sailing and sunscreen. That’s all I’ll say.
But look, it’s a lot easier to drill into what didn’t work for me than what did, because when Chris is on, he’s really on, and it just becomes this kind of trance-like immersive experience. I enjoyed the performances, especially from JD Washington (he straight up rules), I loved the fight choreography leagues more than anything Chris has done in the past, Hoyt shot the hell out of it, and you know what?
No one in Hollywood is doing it like this, so even if it’s not the Chris Nolan movie for me (and I hope it is for you), you better believe I admire the hell out of it for being original and weird and huge and more than anything, genuinely interesting. I’m gonna go back again, and again, because at the end of the day, there’s not really anything I know quite like TENET, and because I know it’s only going to become clearer over time, I know it’s only going to become more rewarding for me too.
"Don't try to understand it, feel it"
I don’t think anything sums up how I’m responding to TENET better than that.