Tenet ★★★★½


It’s funny: I figured that Tenet wasn’t getting much buzz due to a combination of factors: the lack of access due to the pandemic, the discourse regarding sound issues, and a general sense of apathy towards the “see it in theaters” approach etc. But in finally being able to see it safely – it’s clear that even in a bustling blockbuster season without COVID, I feel like Tenet would likely be received in a similar fashion. Not because it’s lacking or anything, far from it, but its methodology of “don’t try to understand it, feel it” really does extend to Christopher Nolan’s construction, and it clearly is divisive. This is very much the succinct, propulsive momentum of Dunkirk mixed with the cerebral spy ambition of Inception. I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s a match made in movie heaven for me, and Tenet more than lives up to expectations. Nolan’s work here is freeing, bruising, and almost too quick to soak in at once.

Clearly the film of a madman and a dedicated technician, Tenet finds a populist groove with a globetrotting espionage flavor, all while constantly toying with the conventions of the narrative. It’s impressive how smooth this movie is, with such a charming cast and instances of grand spectacle, while still unraveling itself at every turn. Not only is Nolan showcasing set-pieces in the first act that his earlier movies either would’ve had as their respective climax, or not even had at all, but he’s utilizing them in a manner of dissecting their linearity.

Throughout Tenet, Nolan breaks apart the plodding structure of his previous films by imbuing the methodical nature of the set-up into the action. This doesn’t build up to a grand finale or the final heist or anything of the sort – every development is either re-approached or viewed from another angle, providing a new perspective that completes a missing link from an “earlier” event in the film.

Time in Tenet is not akin to the “levels” in Inception, the cosmic angle in Interstellar, or even a focus on the immediate Present as in Memento: it is based in fate - wrestling with the future before we can even conceive of the consequences. It’s how Nolan so precisely sets up a linear chain of events that are then dismantled for a different context. It only helps that this is some of Nolan’s best action yet. Clear-eyed, determined, often procedural in nature and hard-hitting. The stakes are there but often in the midst of it all, the focus is on how Nolan pieces everything together (along with Jennifer Lame’s *excellent* editing), and how the action is clearly rendered even when the plotting is ambiguous, at some moments incomprehensible.

Even better is the exposition, which in past Nolan films has felt like an annoying, clunky, but necessary break from the action. Often in Tenet, the writing is so flowery and quick that I wanted more. It flows well and often you don’t even notice the characters explaining things because it’s already on the move to the next idea, the next set-piece. Which is fitting in a film that is so dedicated to rearranging a traditional narrative structure. Inception’s Elliot Page saying, “Whose dream are we in exactly?!” is nowhere to be found in Tenet. But this is just another accessory to Nolan’s stripped-down approach, his focus on minimal visual grammar and expansive ideas.

This is a 2.5-hour movie but it felt like 30 minutes, and Nolan’s approach to exposition and the “walk and talk” scenes find a stronger resonance in Tenet than in his earlier works, mostly because it all makes sense visually, even if the delicate details get lost in the shuffle. Nolan’s also improved his shooting-style: rather than some of his films feeling like banger IMAX showcases with a mix of character scenes that look almost televisual, he’s mastered the coherency of putting the spectacle alongside the functional. It’s so seamless in moving from cerebral insanity to the connective tissue that it provides a cushion for the viewer, and the exposition is continuous bit by bit rather than droning on and on.

Ultimately, Tenet is packed with abstracted images rather than the usual Nolan route of going out of his way to explain or reorient the viewer to what’s on screen (not that I don’t enjoy that side of him too!), and I loved it. “Try and keep up” is right – this film offers wicked action alongside a structural riff of Nolan’s own thematic obsessions. Pretty cool if you ask me.

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