Tenet

Tenet ★★★

"Don't think it, feel it," uttered by Clemence Posey when she explains to The Protagonist (John David Washington) how to "retrieve" inverted objects, functions as a mission statement not just for the time travel mechanics of the film but also for the film as a whole. It's a somewhat unexpected proposition from Christopher Nolan, whose reception among both fans and critics is tied in large part to his puzzle box films that ask you not to feel, but to think out their mechanics. But it's also a natural evolution from Interstellar, which sought to provide a materialist, mechanical explanation even for love (itself an elaboration of the implications of Inception's ending).

Nolan's resituated concerns are evident in the film's attentiveness to the concerns of Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who is married to the film's abusive antagonist, the arms dealer Sator, who also happens to be the The Future's representative in its war against The Past and Present. Although it is worth noting that Tenet gestures toward climate change as it enters its climax (The Future is waging its war because it believes the Past/Present is responsible for depleting the earth), the film isn't concerned with the issue; Kat's relationship with Sator, and her attempt to break free without losing her son, is of more interest to the film and arguably even The Protagonist.

Unfortunately, Tenet never really sells us on the fact that Kat and her son are worth prioritizing. She lacks much resembling a personality or interests throughout the film, and we don't even have a scene of her enjoying time with her son. Nolan has prioritized a human-interest story even above his high-concept tech shenanigans, but has not given us the means by which we could "feel it" rather than "think it." Perhaps the reason so much of the discussion surrounding Tenet is about the mechanisms of the plot is because its emotional core is so hollow.

But if Nolan's attempts to mature emotionally are hampered by his shortcomings as a screenwriter, it is worth noting how he as improved in other aspects of storytelling. When comparing Tenet to Inception, the difference in his approach to exposition is impossible to miss. After Inception's opening heist, we transition to a prolonged period of exposition; the film lays out the rules of its high-concept over nearly 45 minutes. Tenet, by contrast, peters out its exposition in tiny chunks—a line or two here, and then a line or two there—that gives you only the essential information. When Neil (Robert Pattinson) begins to explain the time-travel mechanics to Debicki, the film cuts away as he begins, "in quantum physics"; it's easy to imagine Nolan keeping the recap in an older film. When The Protagonist grills Neil shortly thereafter about the Grandfather Paradox, Neil—and the film—shrugs it off. "There is no answer, it's a paradox." Translation: don't worry too much about this stuff and just focus on what's in front of you.

Tenet does seem to have left many viewers confused, but focusing on what's in front of you struck me (on my first and only viewing) as a perfectly comprehensible way to watch the film. Nolan makes a point to ensure you won't miss anything crucial, as with the scenes where Neil and The Protagonist return to Oslo, their final conversation, and the slow pace of the scenes with Kat and Sator on the boat in the climax. Through The Prestige (and with the exception of Batman Begins), Nolan seemed to be enticing the viewer to re-watch the film with the new information; with Tenet, he seems to work to ensure precisely the opposite, that you will not need to re-watch the film.

Nolan has also taken a major step forward in his craft. His compositions still lack breathing room or a sense of offscreen space and are restricted to a single plain of action, but his poor and inefficient editing (which I have written about in Dunkirk (see bottom post here; subscription required) and Inception (no subscription required) is much improved Tenet. It is worth noting that Nolan has worked with Lee Smith in all his films since Batman Begins, but that he worked with Jennifer Lame (whos credits include Noah Baumbach's 2010s work, Ari Aster's films, and Manchester By the Sea) this time. The clarity of the car chase at the center of the film is Nolan's most coherent action sequence, and dialogue scenes are similarly lucid in a way that they frequently are not in past films, even at their most simple (see Bordwell on this problem).

All in all, a bit of a mixed bag for Nolan. Its improvements are clear, but its goals seem a mismatch for the director's strengths. It should also go without saying that I will take a mixed bag from Nolan, a director with a vision creating original works, over any other tentpole Hollywood is churning out.