Reel Critic: “Tenet”

By Jack Torpey

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” is without question one of the most narratively and visually complex films that I’ve ever seen. One might guess this given the nature of the plot, which follows a CIA agent, known only as the Protagonist (John David Washington), on his mission to save the world from ruin at the hands of Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian oligarch who is working with an entity in the future to destroy civilization in the present.

Sator communicates with this entity by means of inversion, a technology that reverses the entropy of an object or person and sends it backwards through time.

Add to this dizzying concept a screenplay that moves through complicated expositional dialogue at a breakneck pace and images of characters moving through time in opposite directions, and what you’re left with is an unapologetically confusing film. Unapologetic is the key word, of course, because Nolan is aware of the complexity of the cinematic yarn he is spinning, and he knows how to keep us engaged until the cloth is spun.

Nolan’s expertise is apparent in the skillfulness of the screenplay. The movie is two and a half hours long, but it runs with incredible briskness, a feat that is the result of its pacing. He knows that the inversion technology is the most fascinating aspect of the story, so he plants its full reveal in the middle of the film and gradually lifts the curtain on it throughout the opening half. There is palpable narrative tension as we walk step by step with the Protagonist, dodging inverted bullets and fighting a man moving in reverse, all while trying to piece together the mystery unfolding around him.

When the Protagonist finally witnesses inversion in the open for the first time during a car chase halfway through the film, the staging is brilliant. Composer Ludwig Göransson’s score reverberates from the screen, Neil’s (Robert Pattison) panicked questioning increases anxiety as he hears voices speaking over the radio in reverse and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s deliberate tracking of an inverted car barreling toward the Protagonist’s vehicle work together harmoniously to unsettle the viewer and confront them with the menacing technology at the center of the story.

Beyond its structural prowess, Nolan’s screenplay also excels on a human level. The director’s treatment of a desperate mother (Elizabeth Debicki) fighting to save her son from her crazed husband is intensely realistic and often hard to watch. Simultaneously, the Protagonist’s repeated willingness to sacrifice his mission to save those around him creates a strong moral bond between him and the audience. In one particularly moving scene, Washington and Pattinson’s characters share a moment that shifts the film’s focus from technical sci-fi devices to a simple theme of friendship.

“Tenet” also benefits from a second key feature that defines any Christopher Nolan film: spectacle. Scenes like a packed opera house coming under siege by terrorists, a pair of agents rappelling up a Mumbai skyscraper and a 747 airliner crashing into a warehouse all occur within the first 45 minutes of the film. The amount of action that Nolan packs into this movie is remarkable, especially given that almost all of it was accomplished using practical sets and effects. This action was captured on 65mm IMAX film cameras, providing sweeping scale and clarity to match the film’s ambitious story. The picture is supplemented by a truly powerful soundscape that will literally shake the viewers’ seats. It is a visceral experience, best exemplified by the opening opera sequence’s unnerving mix of an orchestra tuning and Göransson’s rumbling blasts laid over shattering gun shots.

The moment when story, sight and sound all blend to create an overpowering cinematic experience always sticks with me at the end of a Christopher Nolan film. “Tenet” isn’t his best work. It never reaches the dramatic heights of “The Dark Knight” trilogy, it doesn’t possess the narrative mastery of his earlier, smaller projects and it never touches the pathos achieved by his work in “Interstellar” and “Dunkirk.” But “Tenet,” in all of its complexity and grandeur, aims high and hits its mark, all because its filmmaker had confidence in his vision. That conviction rubs off on us as we watch, and before we know it, we are right there with Nolan, committed to a world where reverse entropy and temporal pincer movements reign supreme.