bybowes’s review published on Letterboxd:
To properly explain myself I have to start many years ago. When I was 18, my second year in college, I took a fiction writing workshop taught by a well-known novelist who shall remain nameless here (mainly because if she remembers me at all, any mention of my name probably elicits a "Jesus Christ....him"). I was very excited at the prospect of getting my future storied career as A Very Serious Writer underway, and as such I was more than a bit terrified when it came time to submit my first short story. It had to be work that left no doubt whatsoever as to my genius, which was of course breathtaking, and breathtaking genius has to take breath away. But I had not started writing, and it was getting uncomfortably close to the moment of the respiratory heist. The problem was solved through the means many writers before me and many writers in the future will likely turn as well: in the process of getting drunk enough to resurrect Ernest Hemingway from the dead I mentioned my creative dilemma to a friend who was equally as drunk but free from the incalculable burden of literary pretension, and he said "dude just fuckin *write* something, if you're a good writer it'll be good, now shut the fuck up and let's drink." It was all so simple. And yet it took another to light the way.
The writing went very smoothly once I shut the fuck up and did it, and the next thing anyone knew I was handing out copies of a 43-page story about impossibly beautiful people doing spy shit and blowing up yachts on behalf of a splinter agency of British Intelligence. It did not invite close scrutiny, but there was a healthy amount of ownage, especially by semi-prestigious fiction workshop standards. And, triumph of triumphs, my professor the well-known novelist told me "That was entertaining, and a very pleasant surprise, but if you turn in anything that long again this semester I will kill you."
So that's the explanation. Tenet fucking owns because it traveled back in time to when I was a teenager and my portal to the world was impossibly heightened and it delivered on absolutely every level I could have possibly desired. It is a bespoke experience, tailored to everything that I love. There's spy shit. There's a heist. There's another heist. There are impossibly beautiful people in exquisite tailoring. There are yachts. Things explode. Things explode backwards. There is very, very fictional science. It is loud. It is percussive. It's long as shit, but there isn't a single extraneous molecule. It is a perfect circle.
One pattern I noticed in the promotion (such as it was in these troubled times) for the movie was a tendency on the actors' part to make self-deprecating remarks about not understanding the script, which if true had little apparent effect on the finished product. There was an apparent--and again, frequently stated by many of the involved parties--decision to go along and trust the process. It is the actor's job, after all, to understand isolated moments and actions, rather than keeping the whole movie in their head. If you trust your material, and your director, it frees you to engage with those moments.
The cast of Tenet's trust in Christopher Nolan is paid back, and not because he singularly pulled this off on his own, but because he in turn trusted everyone involved. A perfect circle, again. The director may sign the canvas, but the canvas itself was woven by another, the paints devised by still another, the frame carved and cut by still another. The making-of featurette on the Blu-ray takes the time to spread a lot of credit around to the crew and designers, and not in the disingenuous, noblesse oblige kind of way one often sees, in a sincere acknowledgment that this was a collective achievement.
That achievement is to make a very expensive pop movie that really fucking blew my hair back. There is a place for this kind of movie, and I can show you the exact chamber of my heart where it gets its mail if you like, but that's more or less the point of this post, so there's no need to get literal. And that is, I think, the key to enjoying Tenet. It's spelled out near the beginning by Clemence Poesy, and in numerous tantalizingly elusive ways by Robert Pattinson in between backwards car chases and imploding explosions, that the way to go here is to just follow what the movie is laying out for you. It cannot possibly, to paraphrase one of Pattinson's lines, do you any good to try and parse the exact mechanics of the way inversion works. It looks cool, and the science is, by Nolan's own admission, mostly bullshit, that he had Kip Thorne vet, and to which I can only imagine Thorne replying, "ehh, it's bullshit but lay the ownage on thick and nobody'll give a fuck" (I paraphrase, to put it mildly).
John David Washington pulls off a deceptively difficult role here, precisely because he knows how to go along for the ride, beat the absolute fuck out of an elite team of Russian bruisers in a restaurant kitchen, and understand the science only to the degree that it affects his next move. The difficulty comes into play in the fact that it's an inherently reactive role for almost the entire story, which is the direct inverse of the way protagonists generally drive narrative through action. It's only at the very last scene when it's revealed that the Protagonist (shout out to Snow Crash) has been driving the narrative all along, just from the future. It's the kind of magic act you can only really pull off if, at your core, you're a real star. I think that as JDW's career continues, his durability will lie in the fact that he's a different kind of star than his dad, who while being one of the very best movie stars we've ever seen is not a reactive actor. He is the sun. The son is a heavenly body of a different kind, and so early in his path we can't yet know what he'll be, but he is absolutely going somewhere worth watching.
Pattinson is a perfect foil for him, his part in the pas de deux taking him in and out of the shadows, variously acting and reacting, never hitting a false step. Which is a marked difference from most of his performances of the past few years, in his post-Twilight grand tour of arthouse and/or auteur fare, most of which are chaotic, choice-y rebukes to the very concept of stardom. But here Pattinson pulls off one of the holiest types of movie star performance, the "my haircut cost a thousand dollars and I just got my dick sucked, you're welcome" kind of turn only a highly specific type of star can pull off without you wanting to fucking kill them. (Notable avatars: Brad Pitt, Chow Yun-fat, and, bizarrely, Saif Ali Khan.) Between JDW and Pattinson you have another perfect circle.
Debicki's amazing. She's the best. She wears heels in this. They make her like six foot seven. They had to cast a six foot five guy as Branagh's head of security because of this. I should not elaborate further. This is all meant to be read in a wholesome and respectful light.
Anyway, all of this is in danger of getting repetitive. I understand on an intellectual level that some people found Tenet confusing or off-putting, and I am in no position after all this to tell someone their personal reaction to this movie is wrong, but I assure you, there is an absolutely splendid sensory experience to be had here. My eighteen year old self dug this movie out of the radioactive Siberian rubble. It has been in my heart this entire time. All I can give you is a gesture, and a word: Tenet.