jack’s review published on Letterboxd:
We live in a twilight world
Revisiting Tenet in the comfort of my own home and with subtitles – it improves heavily upon that first viewing, a viewing that wasn’t all too negative – it was a solid four stars from me but having the subtitles on and being able to understand (or an attempt at understanding) everything unfolding, I found myself basking in Nolan’s rhythm: it’s now one of my favorites from him and it seems like for me, Nolan works best when he’s got complete control creatively – The Dark Knight Trilogy doesn’t work for me for numerous reasons, but one of them is because there’s little for Nolan to experiment with: with Tenet , I think Nolan has reached a peak with his storytelling – if Dunkirk was the film that proved Nolan’s ability to deliver the bare minimum, Tenet is Nolan’s defiant return to the ambitious (and at times flawed) filmmaking we’ve grown to associate with him.
This seems to be a huge step for Nolan as a filmmaker – when dissecting Tenet , I think it’s pretty easy to see that this is, so clearly, a Christopher Nolan film that’s equipped with every ounce of insanity (both in its most perfected form and its most flawed and annoying) that we’ve seen from him but in a weird way, this and Dunkirk act as Nolan becoming self-aware as an artist, as a filmmaker, and maybe more importantly, as a person: Dunkirk saw Nolan create a work that feels so out of ordinary from Nolan’s usual staple of filmmaking – it's him acknowledging his flaws as a filmmaker and creating something that challenges himself and therefore, appeases his critics and skeptics. Tenet , on the other hand, sees Nolan becoming comfortable with his faults as a filmmaker – the mechanics of both his Cinema and the robotic nature of the craftsman becoming aware of himself and this is the result: an unabashedly ridiculous, convoluted, and ultimately ambitious feature about time and the inability to touch the past because we’re too busy avoiding the future.
Nolan is so clearly fascinated with mechanics and technology – this spectacle is no different from his other works – but also invested in theory and philosophy, particularly existentialism; every character is an artifice for himself and secretly expresses some sort of sympathy towards them – in Tenet , Nolan is particularly fond of The Protagonist and Neil: everyone else is either shunned as some sort of exposition tactic or completely irredeemable (which is why, by the way, Branagh’s caricature works: it’s so overtly typical and flamboyant – the big bad Russian hell-bent on destroying the world because he has everything else at his disposal – that we’re never really supposed to sympathize or even understand his and relate to his motifs since he’s so overt) and I think this is due to their relatability with Nolan: The Protagonist is who Nolan is as a person currently and Neil is who Nolan strives to become sometime soon.
The Protagonist’s inability to connect with people – instead finding comfort in spectacle and mechanics – seems to parallel Nolan’s own dissatisfaction for people; it’s very rare for main characters in Nolan’s films to be perceived as humanistic when they’re mostly robotic and stiff – although I'd make the case that Dom and Cooper in Inception and Interstellar are exempt from this idea – but they’re obviously reflections of himself, no man makes continuously cold and calculated lead characters without some sort of reflection or purpose: with Cinema, Nolan is creating characters that reflect his own mind and The Protagonist is Nolan to a tee. The struggles to connect with people, the meaningless interactions that ultimately mean nothing to him – it’s only when he realizes that he’s losing Neil does he shed his tears, which is why I think they operate as a yin and yang of each other and how Nolan is to be perceived. And Neil acts as the person that Nolan wants to become: caring, invested, named – the struggle to identify with a world when your mind is so cold.
With that out of the way, I believe there’s two ways of discussing Tenet as a feature film: breaking down Nolan’s idea of the puzzle box method of storytelling – decoding every ounce of metaphysics and philosophical themes Nolan throws at us through the tapestry of a grandiose Science-Fiction spectacle – or viewing the images for themselves; my initial viewing (in a theater) left me confused because the sound was (and to an extent, still is) obnoxiously loud but even taking as a criticism, there’s still so much to find endlessly fascinating with the motion picture no matter how you look at it and see it breath. If you’re going to do it the first way, the film is essentially Nolan’s chaotic example of time and narrative, past and future colliding into the present creating the notion that time is a construct because the present never truly exists since it’s backed repeatedly with the past and how the future is merely seconds away from being the past; it doesn’t help that the film is racing against time to save the world and therefore, it seems like Nolan is acknowledging his own convoluted opinions on time while also maintaining them.
But I don’t want to look at Tenet like that and here’s why: my initial theater showing and my problems with the sound. No filmmaker intentionally makes the sound that obnoxiously loud to the point you can’t understand what his characters are saying and that’s when it hit me: the convoluted nature of Tenet comes from its discussions – the images, the movement, the motion are what tell the story, I oddly feel that this would work better as a silent feature rather than a talkie: I get the notion that with this project, Nolan found dialogue absolutely pointless and tedious – Nolan's walk and talk style of exposition plays out fairly well with this (as well as it’s worked for, let’s say, Inception ) but even then, the images speak for themselves; dialogue has always been Nolan’s enemy – even in his highest rated and acclaimed work, his dialogue seems to hinder the greater picture and especially with this film, his reluctance seems noted.
The quote from Tenet that has received more traction than perhaps any Nolan quote is from Barbara towards the beginning of the picture: Don’t try to understand it: feel it . This is the dialogue that seems to warn us from Nolan; feel what the film does for you rather than decode what it means analytically. The core thing with this film is the motion of what we see – the intention in inverting human physical movement in order to disorient and affect how we see movement in terms of people and film (I remember seeing this film and being convinced that a woman I saw jogging as I was heading home was running backwards), the spectacle in seeing explosions and crashes (the airplane scene is literally used as a physical demonstration of extravagance: Neil even says that the whole point for it is for the flair), and the visually enriching backdrops that scream of spectacle and vibrancy – the film’s intention is supposed to evoke something from within us and garner some sort of reaction as it pertains to how we feel. So, as Barbara says: Don’t try to understand it: feel it , and you may unlock the secrets of the film and its purpose: it’s a film that reflects its artist and in doing so, becomes a universal film for all – and yes, if you hated it, you felt something. The intent knows no range in individual expression.
I wouldn’t be surprised if on a third viewing, I believe this to be a masterpiece – as it is, I'm very close to giving it a five-star rating and may succumb to the film's power and could very well make this a five-star film. I feel like I've only scratched the surface of the majesties of Tenet and even as a skeptic of Nolan’s Cinema, this is quite remarkable – we live in a twilight world indeed.
*edit: I’m there. it’s a 5