ZackKrenn’s review published on Letterboxd:
“I’m the protagonist of this operation.”
-The protagonist of Tenet, The Protagonist.
Nolan’s films have always been meta, but to call Tenet meta would be an understatement. While it is an exciting, fast paced espionage action thriller, with some of the most outlandish setpieces ever constructed, it is also one of the more personal films I’ve seen from Nolan in how it constructs its surprising emotional resonance around its meta commentary. There are obvious moments, with lines like “Don’t try to understand it, feel it,” which contrary to what I hear a lot of people say represented the film itself to them, I think represents just the concept of time inversion and how important FEELING is in accomplishing the mission, even when it is deemed necessary to repress it. But everything about Tenet in (especially) structure, characters, concept, music, writing, and visuals, is self aware in a way Nolan hasn’t been before.
Normally I would describe Nolan films as self serious, even if they DO earn that presentation. Tenet may be the most FUN Nolan has had making a film in a decade, and he wants to take us on this wild ass ride with him; he assumes we are smart enough to keep up with his ridiculous high concept ideas, and I respect the hell out of him for that. For some, this approach has seemed cold and inaccessible, but, I found it consistently entertaining and eventually surprisingly touching.
I do not pass judgment on anyone who cannot engage with Tenet’s deliberate presentation, because it’s designed to represent a cold and unfeeling world that’s actively trying to suppress the humanity of those inside it, even as they are trying to SAVE it. This will just not be an engaging way to showcase character for a lot of audience members, which is understandable. Nolan is a filmmaker who likes to come up with a central idea/situation that all of the characters are developing around instead of the inverse (lol). I think it works better in some of his films than it does in others, and in Tenet, given its classic espionage model and structure in its first half especially, it works like gangbusters for me.
“We live in a Twilight World.” This is the first line The Protagonist (which is the only name he is given) speaks in Tenet. In order to understand the characters of Tenet, we have to understand the world that they are trapped in. A “Twilight World” is literally defined as “a mysterious or secret world,” but it is most commonly used to refer to a world of informants and espionage; a world of violence, imposters, information and distrust. In this Twilight World, to be anything other than the perfect, nameless, informant, killing machine, is to be dead. To be human is to die; thus our nameless Protagonist. The unfeeling world with which The Protagonist had willingly, knowingly thrown himself into, and the how equally willing he was to be killed for his brothers in arms, the few people he has ACTUALLY connected with, tells us a lot about him without having to say anything about where he came from or who he knew.
It’s The Protagonist’s willingness to fight and die for the few people he connects with that is the driving emotional force for a lot of his actions in the second half of Tenet, which is when it picked up significantly for me. I was enjoying the twilight world of 60s/70s style espionage plotting of the first half, paced out with some killer action setpieces. But when Tenet revs it up to 11 in the second half, it REALLY revs it, with easily the best high way chase sequence since The Matrix Reloaded, which this may have beat on sheer ingenuity. That’s before the fucking gonzo climax; the mammoth sized task it must have been to shoot is something I can’t even begin to comprehend.
Yet in all of the chaos in this climax, the plot beats are still focused around the simple, human struggles and flaws of the characters finally coalescing with each other within the flow and structure of the edit. Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat getting a genuinely powerful moment of self actualization at the end, nearly making up for the irritating damsel in distress role she was subjugated to earlier. Tho, if I am right about Nolan taking the self reflexive angle on a lot of these characters, one of them literally named The fucking Protagonist, her being put into that role MAY have been a purposeful choice. Nolan does seem to be kinda poking fun at himself in a lot of scenes, with a more dry, classy, British sense of humor to the exposition dumps than normal, often pointing out the inherent paradoxes and silliness of time travel bs. What makes Tenet work is, within its own Time logic and world, everything makes total sense and ties back in on itself rather nicely, with structure and character in tandem, giving Pattinson’s Neil a few genuine emotional beats in the 11th hour that snuck up on me.
Tenet is Nolan’s most unfiltered, visionary film yet, which is better or worse for some. As with any of his previous films, I understand either reaction to something this vivid and strange, but I can’t deny I was really taken with it. It could do with a couple extra minutes here and there (this thing MOVES, faster than any of Nolan’s previous movies), and I already mentioned the irritating development of Kat’s character into the damsel in distress, but what Tenet gets right is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Action has never been conceived and executed like this, time has never been shown in such a unique way, spy thrillers have never been this fucking wild, and sci-fi hasn’t been this fun in ages. I can’t wait to see it again and again.
Pretty sure most of us can agree the score fucking slaps.