Review: Tenet (2020)

Tenet (2020) Tenet (2020)

No idea what I’m watching, and having a blast. Plus this score slaps.

“Don’t think about it, just feel it”: I took the advice of the scientist (Clémence Poésy), and enjoyed Tenet all the more for it. I daresay it might also work well for watching certain other Christopher Nolan films, which often seem to perform intellectualism without actually being intellectual – a feature which seems to piss off certain people (including, from time to time, me). As in those other films, Tenet presents an idea which at first seems clever, which then stops making sense once thought through, which in turn makes its execution seem clever once again for, if nothing else, its commitment to stylised distraction and tactile, analogue craft (shooting on film, practical effects, and even capturing performances both forwards and backwards).

It’s a cartoon in well-made grown-up clothes – it’s up to you whether you find that charming.

I had no idea what was happening and yet somehow had a blast – due in no small part to the wild score by Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther, The Mandalorian, Childish Gambino‘s ‘Redbone’), the magentism of Elizabeth Debicki (my favorite part of the excellent Widows), the charisma of Robert Pattinson, and the seductive cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema – all bound together by Nolan’s trademark visceral aesthetic, comprising practical effects and commitment to shooting on film, last bastion of the medium that he is.

While he’s a ferocious action performer and is, let’s be clear, beautiful, I’m not always sure I understand John David Washington‘s acting choices, and I was similarly uncertain in BlaKkKlansman (2018), so I’m not willing to blame the seemingly-deliberately-thinly-drawn writing of his character here, The Protagonist.

One viewer’s “deliberately challenging” may be another’s “film-student-bad”.

Technically, Tenet‘s film-making walks a contentious line: one viewer’s “deliberately challenging” may be another’s “film-student-bad”. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography and Jennifer Lame‘s editing are just as often stylish as heavy-handedly obtuse – and neither are helped by Nolan’s insistence on setting exposition scenes on loud boats or in war-zones, through gas masks or over phone calls.

While Tenet shares many things with Nolan’s landmark Inception (high concepts, exposition dumps, Brits and Americans, guns and suits), the practical effects are perhaps as mind-bending in theory but, for some reason, nowhere near as striking or instantly iconic. Maybe that’s because Inception takes (substantial) time to walk us through the concepts before the action begins, while Tenet just yanks us from set piece to set piece without pausing or caring to let us know what or why. Or maybe it’s simply because rotating hallways and Escher drawings come to life are less common to our eyes than… film played backwards? That said, Washington’s backwards-fighting stunt rehearsals are wild to watch (via WB):

I’ve heard, and certainly appreciate, the criticism that in Tenet the emotional stakes are told, rather than shown, and therefore not earned. This, however, seems like the logical next step in Nolan’s progression as a storyteller: if Inception‘s experiment was in overloading the film’s first half with exposition to allow the action to play out in the second, Tenet asks the question: “How much do we actually need to be shown in order to feel?”

It’s perhaps ironic, given that that Tenet is, in theory at least, the answer to those of us who feel Nolan generally doesn’t demonstrate an understanding of human emotions, development, or catharsis. Emphasis, however, on “in theory”: Tenet experiments with stripping away subjective or emotional stakes as the audience’s entry into high concept, and instead simply exploring the concept on its own. Tenet is perhaps the distilled essence of the film-maker’s least-arguably interesting traits. But is it better that Nolan not even try to connect, film-maker to audience, on any kind of human level? Careful, perhaps, what we wish for.

Further Viewing

Kenneth Branagh made notes for his lines in reverse with a Russian (Estonian?) accent (via @tenetnocontext and @FilmFreeway):

Watching those backwards-fighting rehearsals adds to the mind-boggle factor showcased in fan edits like this one by Novarya:

“Ending Explained” videos actively dumb us down as audiences and are the wet, mouldy, stinky comfort blanket of art appreciation and cultural engagement. That said, fan theories can sometimes be fun – and this explainer from Heavy Spoilers might even add some extra colour to repeat viewings:

A spoiler-free explainer? PhDeng has something for you if, like me, you need an assist wrapping your brain around how time inversion works in Tenet:

Tenet has inspired entire communities on Reddit and YouTube to postulate timey-wimey explainers which, in their way, are perhaps even more impressive than the film itself. Here’s an entire playlist of “3D Breakdowns” of action sequences in Tenet (via Welby Coffespill):

Perhaps the reason Tenet can feel both baffling and fun is because even its most basic ideas are inevitably, and often repeatedly, explained through exposition. Thomas Flight laments that Nolan “uses exposition to explain the film’s convoluted plot instead of showing us the revelations and details”. This reliance on ‘tell, don’t show’ means that, for each development, “there’s no visual clue… we don’t see why… we don’t see any kind of emotional impact”, and this “makes the plot revelations way less satisfying and impactful”:

How wild is it that for Tenet, Nolan tapped editor Jennifer Lame based on her (fantastic) work on (the devastating) Manchester by the Sea (2016):

How great is Ludwig Göransson?

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