Tenet ★★★★

Aside from the Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan’s movies are all confusing in a similar way, primarily because of his love for non-linear presentation, but he usually spends enough time establishing rules and plans that most of the audience can understand by the time the credits roll. Even an incomplete comprehension of movies like Inception and The Prestige still feels rewarding because piecing together parts of the narrative and thematic puzzles is a peek inside the mind of a well-intentioned madman.

Tenet is the complete opposite: everything proceeds in chronological order, but the exposition is so rushed and unspecific that it’s practically impossible to grasp on first viewing, even with subtitles. It’s so convoluted, continually adding new concepts and logistics to its already-bonkers premise. It’s a tangled web of paradoxes — messy yet precise, vague yet specific, pointless yet thought-provoking.

This chaotic explosion of too much information in not enough time is so uninviting that it allows the audience to check out from its meticulous mechanics and instead just ride the wave of insane spectacle. It practically begs you to stop getting hung up on logistics. Divorced from any sense of meaning or context, the action imagery is among the best the filmmaker has ever created, and the dialogue is by far his funniest writing yet. Each scene works so well in its own bizarre way that importance of the connections between them fades into oblivion — yet the overall movie still maintains a relentlessly thrilling pace. And the broad narrative beats are actually pretty satisfying — Branagh’s villainous motivations make enough sense as an existentialist Bond homage, and the way that Nolan closes various time loops is like the best part of Prisoner of Azkaban expanded into an entire movie.

Elizabeth Debicki’s character has been rightly criticized for her lack of depth and the general clunkiness of the abuse subplot, and John David Washington is only selectively compelling as a leading man — I have trouble believing him when he’s overly dramatic and serious, but he’s great when he’s supposed to be funny and handles the action scenes with more grace than most stars. But his cold demeanor weirdly fits with Nolan’s mechanical tone here, making this a gorgeous cinematic machine that makes little sense but feels very right.

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