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Time is (not) on my side – ‘Tenet’

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Christopher Nolan has clout. And he’s unafraid to use it.

It’s almost cliché at this point to talk about Nolan’s position as the last bastion of original idea-driven blockbuster filmmaking. Yes, the cinematic landscape is defined by the ebb and flow of franchises now. Hell, Nolan understands that better than anyone – he did his franchise turn with Batman, after all, though those films are obviously superhero outliers. But he’s the guy who can get a nine-figure check to direct his own non-IP script.

He’s at it again with “Tenet,” currently in theaters. I’ll be real with you – I’m not at all sure how to talk about this movie to people who haven’t already seen it. But hey, that’s the gig, right?

There’s obviously a lot of baggage here. Nolan’s insistence that the film be experienced in a theater turned it into a bellwether, leaving it to assume the burden of expectation with regard to theatrical reopenings writ large. That pressure can’t help but inform the way audiences experience the film. Add to that the outsized expectations that always accompany the filmmaker’s work and you’ve got a recipe for disappointment.

Thankfully, Nolan’s skill is such that he largely manages to sidestep that potential letdown. “Tenet” isn’t a perfect movie, but it is the sort of meticulously-constructed blockbuster that we’ve come to expect from the director. It is massive in scope, a challenging puzzle box of a film that works both as pure spectacle and as something a bit more thoughtful. The complexities of the plot skate right up to the edge of confusion, but anyone sitting down to watch a Nolan movie should probably expect some sort of chronological convolution.

And boy, do we ever get some of that.

Any in-depth effort to synopsize this movie is doomed to A) spoil everything, B) make very little sense, or C) both. No surprise that there’s a lot going on in a Christopher Nolan joint, but there’s A LOT going on in “Tenet.”

We meet our never-named main character – he’s referred to only as the Protagonist (John David Washington, “The Old Man & the Gun”) – as he takes part in a rescue/retrieval operation at a symphonic performance in the Ukraine. He is an American, a government agent enlisted to extract an asset and retrieve … something.

But when the mission goes awry, the Protagonist finds himself spinning down a rabbit hole, caught up in a spiraling situation that he barely understands. Sent out into the world with little more than the single word “Tenet,” a term whose utility is never made clear to him, our hero is quickly enmeshed in circumstances that leave him as the potential savior of life as we know it, one of the few enlisted to combat unseen forces wielding time inversion to endanger the world.

One of the major players in all of this is Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, “All Is True”), a mysterious and unstable Russian oligarch and arms dealer. Sator’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki, “The Burnt Orange Heresy”) is viewed as a way in, but that dynamic presents its own set of difficulties. The only person the protagonist trusts to be at his side is Neil (Robert Pattinson, “Waiting for the Barbarians”), a skilled and knowledgeable British operative harboring secrets of his own.

Ultimately, it’s up to the Protagonist to navigate the twisty-turny path laid before him. He must delicately untangle the snarled threads of chronology and conspiracy while also being willing to, if necessary, hack his way through the Gordian knot that stands between us and Armageddon.

And that’s … all I can say? The plot mechanics are built primarily around the nature of the aforementioned time inversion; it involves entropic reversal and back-and-forth movement through the timestream and a whole mess of quantum paradoxes. The result is a narrative that is thickly layered and complicated (though I would stop short of the accusations leveled by some that the film is confusing – you definitely have to pay attention, but if you do, you’ll be fine).

Few things seem to delight Nolan as much as subverting genre by folding in his own sensibilities. He’s done it with war movies and space movies. He’s done it with superheroes and heists. And now with “Tenet,” he’s given us his James Bond riff, a spy thriller driven by over-the-top action sequences and shadowy organizations and world-threatening villains that is thoroughly and tastily flavored by the chronological fluidity that is his stock in trade.

That fascination with time is overtly present throughout; the conceit of inversion allows for a forward/backward flow dichotomy that gives the film a mirroring aspect that is fascinating to watch unfold. The palindromic vibe extends all the way to the very title of the film, “Tenet” reading the same in either direction.

(There are a few real highlights, but for my money, the best of the best was the dual perspectives on one intricately choreographed fight sequence – it was impressive as hell and an utter delight to watch, the sort of thing that left me absolutely awed.)

Again, one could make the argument that “Tenet” is confusing. There are stretches that are tough to follow if you aren’t paying close heed, particularly when Nolan succumbs to his oddly specific tic of insisting that valuable dialogue be delivered either from behind some sort of mask or from beneath an overloud soundscape (though again, I was very much into the synth-driven sci-fi-tinged music motif that anchors the score). And the narrative is undeniably complex. That said, I’m of the mind that the complexity is the point, even if it does lead to some struggles.

One aspect of “Tenet” that may or may not receive the attention it deserves is the movie star energy that John David Washington brings to the screen. In terms of presence and charisma, he’s got more than a little of his father about him (although he obviously has a long way to go to catch Denzel). It’s a bit of a thankless part – the namelessness of the character is reflected in other aspects, with Washington serving as a willing cipher, accepting the varied premises with which he’s presented. Even so, he’s fun to watch and well-suited to Nolan’s style.

Pattinson is a great foil to Washington, bringing a combination of competence and earnestness that makes him extremely engaging. When he can unleash his easy charm on screen, he always shines. Debicki brings a bit more depth to the damsel in distress trope, finding ways to round a character that could easily been rendered one-dimensional. Meanwhile, Branagh is going for it in the way only Branagh can, gnawing on the scenery in every frame; it’s a toothsome performance that would have felt out of place coming from any other actor, but works wonderfully with him. Some good work from other supporting talents as well – folks like Michael Caine, Himesh Patel and Dimple Kapadia stand out, but everyone does solid work.

“Tenet” is completely and thoroughly a Christopher Nolan film. It is visually stunning and structurally complex, and while it may not have quite the philosophical heft of some of his other work, it is provocative and evocative in its own right. As with so many of Nolan’s films, what you take from it is directly proportional to what you put in. At 150 minutes, “Tenet” is a long movie, but one absolutely worth your time.

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 September 2020 18:32


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