Tenet

Tenet ★★★½

An exhilarating colossus of blockbuster entertainment. No one does it like Christopher Nolan—“it” being the cloak-and-dagger prestige of suckering studio gatekeepers long enough for his dauntless commercial bets to ostensibly become preexisting I.P.

Every Nolan outing is a gift, even before it hits the screen, and no amount of fanboy toxicity (or, in this case, social-media demonizing) can or should take away from that. Yet therein lies the paradox that's fueled the past decade of Nolan's career, an all but unrivaled tenure in the modern Hollywood firmament that's earned both critical acclaim and gilded statuettes while still regularly keeping the deep pockets at Warner Bros. in the black.

What really separates Nolan however from his decidedly less populist peers is what seems like an innate propensity to build movies around one central conceit: What if cinema itself were an idea, and it's the design of the viewer to emulate its assembly? In theory, Tenet is to Christopher Nolan what A Hidden Life was to Terrence Malick, or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to Quentin Tarantino; not so much a return to form as a cerebral homecoming for what unilaterally compels them.

Nolan’s previous film, 2017’s Dunkirk, dispensed with unreality altogether, tuning his heightened jigsaw aesthetic to a time-honored first-person battle cry. It's his greatest work to date, in what could practically be described as the mercurial foil to 2010’s Inception. Winning three Oscars, and Nolan at last legitimized by the Academy with a Best Director nod, who could wait to know how his pin-drop command would make its sci-fi return with Tenet?

2020 would force us—three times—and any positive or negative reception to Tenet has ultimately been prompted by Nolan's insistence it be experienced in a theater. I’ve seen it, twice, but the spectral opening strings of Ludwig Göransson's score (a technical collaboration typically reserved for Hans Zimmer since 2005's Batman Begins) are alas more stigmatized than they would ordinarily warrant. John David Washington plays a C.I.A. agent credited only as the Protagonist (yeah, yeah) who as Tenet starts, in an awe-inspiring sequence, is in the furtive throes of thwarting a terrorist attack on a Kyiv opera house.

His mission fails, his cover blown, and upon swallowing what resembles a cyanide pill instead wakes up with a new, “beyond secret” assignment—code word Tenet— that involves exposing those behind the manufacturing of an “inverted” brand of bullet: produced now, dispatched from the future, and whose entropy allows its action to move backward in time.

“Does your head hurt yet?” a British contact named Neil (a bottle-blond Robert Pattinson) ribs later in Tenet. The operation leads from Mumbai, which introduces the Protagonist to an arms dealer named Priya Singh (Bollywood siren Dimple Kapadia), to London, where he appeals to Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), a local art appraiser, to introduce him to her tycoon husband Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, barrel-chested and effortful), a weapons czar who amassed his fortune in the ruins of post-Soviet Russia.

Sator, it appears, has a way of uncharted communication with the world to come, and dwells his days torturing his wife with the possible legal implications of her having sold him a faked Goya painting as it relates to tutelage of their grade-school son. Sator’s mournful hold over Kat provides the romantic foundation of Tenet, a palatial power chord of an espionage thriller whose brilliance too often teeters into bombast.

Reuniting with his Interstellar and Dunkirk cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, a Dutch-Swedish sage of phosphorescent color, Nolan’s opus routinely hedges the human angle of its blood-and-thunder venture: the chemistry of Washington (pear-jawed, sensitive, quiet-cool) and Debicki (stoic, bright-eyed, urbane). Their retreated courtship suggests Hitchock at his most toned-down and least puritanical—a dark, debonair knight.

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