Updated: Nov 14
The following review contains spoilers for the movie Tenet (2020)
A confusing plot or bewildering concept should not be a deterrent for film lovers. The need to decipher a film’s deeper meaning after a viewing is an attractive quality that creates opportunity for revisitation. One might look to David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (which happens to be my favourite movie), as being both baffling in its narrative and universally praised by critics. What differentiates Lynch from Christopher Nolan (among many things) is that notoriously, Lynch refuses to explain or clarify his films, both in interviews or within the films themselves. Though fans have surely pined for Lynch to explain the significance of the eyebrow-less cowboy or Club Silencio, the lack of explanation elevates the mystery and invites viewers to come back for more. The film is now something we can discuss for hours on end without a definitive answer.
In his latest film, Tenet, Christopher Nolan should have subscribed to his own command declared early in the film: ”Don't try to understand it. Feel it”. Instead the film tries on several occasions to explain the time-bending goings-on, and fails, leaving audiences both bewildered and unsatisfied. Also converse to Lynch, who never rejects aesthetics, character development, or acting performances for the sake of confusing his audience, Tenet’s scientific concepts, which for simplicity I will refer to as “inversion”, are so prominently featured that other essential components that make a film great (such as the ones listed above) are neglected, thus resulting in a film that is at once perplexing and uninteresting.
We see that Tenet will make no effort at being aesthetically pleasing or unique in its first scene, which takes place in a run-of-the mill opera house and its many cinderblock-lined hallways. The rest of the film’s sets will remains similarly uninspired and obtrusively industrial. As the film’s plot explanations fly over our heads, there is nothing particularly visually interesting to keep us intrigued. I turn to the words of Youtube film critic Patrick H. Willems, who summarized the unfortunate consequence of big-budget filmmaking in reference to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as “ugly” and “[looking] like an empty parking lot”.
While the film’s action set pieces are technically well choreographed, they are almost entirely devoid of impact due to lengthy explanations that precede them. For example, in one of the film’s many Bond-esque scenes, “The Protagonist”, played by John David Washington, hatches a plot with his partner “Neil”, played by Robert Pattinson, to crash a plane into a high-security hangar. This moment should be impressive and spectacular, but is instead disappointing as we are told what will happen in excruciating detail only minutes before. Rather than a scene of shock and amazement, a jumbo-jet crashing into a building is about as exciting as a fender-bender.
Nolan has been frequently criticized for his inability or unwillingness to write dynamic female characters. His films tend to cater to an undeniably masculine sensibility, and Tenet is no exception. Elizabeth Debicki as “Kat” is undeniably striking. At almost 6’3” I was delighted to see her grace the screen in four-inch stilettos, unapologetically towering over her male costars. I hesitate to bring up Debicki’s physical appearance before discussing her performance, but like many of the film’s characters there is not much to discuss. Our first sight of her signs her character’s death certificate: she is picking up her son from school. Like so many weakly drawn female characters in male-led films, her character’s sole motivation is her child. Kat almost seems to be living in an entirely different film. A moment in which the camera slowly closes in on Debicki’s single-tear strewn cheek as violins play over her explaining that she only remains in her unhappy marriage so she can maintain custody of her son produced a laugh from me. What was this half-baked melodrama doing in an action thriller? The relationship between Kat and Kenneth Branagh’s “Andre” is exhausting as the actors have almost no emotional chemistry. While the thirty-year age difference is a major factor in their relationships unbelievability, it doesn’t help that much of their shared screen time consists of Andre berating, punching, kicking, and shooting Kat. Debicki is essentially thrown on the screen to be a walking cinematic stereotype: motivated by her motherhood, beaten, and then saved by The Protagonist.
I have little to say about Andre. Branagh’s moustache-twisting caricature of a Russian madman falls into the film’s omnipresent trap of over-explanation while still remaining as confusing as ever. I could not tell you why Andre wants to see the world end or how he convinced an army of goons to go along with his evil plan. He appears to mention climate change as a motivating factor, but this explanation is so abrupt and quickly tossed aside that audiences may wonder if they imagined it.
Tenet is so concerned with its primary concept, that of inverted time manipulation, that it forgets to sustain its other cinematic aspects. It has no discernible style, lacks interesting characters, has a script full of empty clichés, all while focusing on a scientific concept that to the average movie goer makes no discernible sense. As previously stated, a complicated synopsis should not lessen a film, but as Tenet has no other cinematic legs to stand on, there is nothing to feel.