Review: Tenet (2020)
'Tenet' is a palindrome in its very nature. From that slick and stylised title to the repeating action sequences. It all fits in with a world where bullets are just as likely to fly back into a gun as they are to fly out of them. It's a seriously confusing film with a twisting plot and very little down-time to truly think through how all this heady science involving time travel and 'inversion' actually works. Take James Bond, put him into 'Inception' or another of Director Christopher Nolan's high concept thrillers and have supporting characters unload reams of exposition onto him and you'll have something like Tenet, a slightly more sombre Bond film with little time for sarcastic quips, jibes and romancing the leading lady. Some Bond or Nolan fans will find it all exciting and won't mind that the finer details of the plot don't seem to add up and a lot of us will find it tiresome and dull. That said, if you loved Nolan's reverse narrative thriller 'Memento' and the bizarre, cerebral action of 'Inception' you might be endeared to 'Tenet'.
Tenet; the tone of Bond meets 'Inception'.
What's happened happened. Which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. It's not an excuse to do nothing.
'Tenet' follows "The Protagonist" a seemingly nameless CIA super-spy who goes above and beyond in proving his worth to his employers. He's asked to join the secretive organisation, Tenet, to go on the trail of bullets that travel backwards in time to help prevent a possible nuclear holocaust. Relative new-comer, John David Washington plays The Protagonist who links up with British intelligence agent, Neil, a slightly rough but dapper looking Robert Pattinson to investigate a Russian arms dealer and outright brute, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). To stop world war three, the agents must come to grips with inverted technology, something that Tenet's very own Q - Clémence Poésy describes as "technology that can reverse an objects entropy." It seems Nolan, both Writer and Director of 'Tenet' is quick to point out this isn't real time which leaves us wondering exactly what is it then?
From the get-go 'Tenet' seems to want to deafen us with a brutal siege of the Kiev Opera House. The sound designers and Ludwig Göransson must have had a field day making the most monstrous booms they could possibly muster. The action though is tight and tactical and hits like a rifle-butt to the face. Washington's calm and somewhat muted protagonist is the perfect trigger man - little emotion, professional and self assured. Later, the action sequences grow grander, a 474 jet is crashed into a hanger (before reversing back out) and a daring multi-vehicle heist takes place on a highway. Sound like James Bond? It does on paper but The Protagonist is no lounge-lizard or lady killer. In fact, as our natural inclination as an audience is to expect a romance in nearly every story it's a little surprising that there is no real chemistry between The Protagonist and Kat, Sator's terrorised wife who he does his best to protect throughout the film. A more conventional relationship can be found however in the camaraderie between The Protagonist and Pattinson's Neil who share a few moments of a developing friendship.
Bromance: JD Washington and Pattinson have perhaps the most normal on-screen Chemisty.
Kenneth Branagh's Andrei Sator is comically over the top at times as the brutish Russian Oligarch. He is a man with a short temper, with a sick sense of humour; in his first scene with Washington he asks him "How would you like to die?". Of course, he's already thought out an elaborately creepy and sadistic method with just the right amount of twisted humour to satisfy him, I'll let you find out exactly what that is by watching the film. That's not to say Branagh gives a bad performance - he plays the madman with conviction and seems to get kick out of depicting him. His Wife, Kat, played by Elizabeth Debicki possesses the most understandable emotions of the whole bunch. As the battered Wife of Sator, scared for her own life and that of her son's, she is driven by cold-blooded revenge and genuinely revels in any amount of pain she can inflict on her husband. It's refreshing in a film where a lot of the time a characters motivations feel muted.
If this is still sounding like a Bond film it's meant to; 'Tenet' is so much like a Bond film in terms of Narrative beats that it even goes a long with some of the cliches. Eastern European Goons beat The Protagonist to a pulp, Sator himself is an over-the-top angry Russian stereotype and meetings with shady officials like Clémence Poésy's Laura, Michael Caine's Michael Crosby (yes, he's in Tenet, he can't really stay out of a Nolan movie at this point) and most notably Dimple Kapadia's surprising female arms dealer, Priya dispense with reams of expositional dialogue to confuse the audience. Exposition; Nolan's greatest enemy is perhaps the biggest antagonist of the film as it bogs it down when not even attempting to explain how or why people and bullets are moving in reverse. But, and this might actually be in the films defence; the pace doesn't let up much at all to get facts across, it remains even and exciting throughout and doesn't make this two and a half hour long film feel any longer than it should.
You want to crash a plane?... How big of a plane?
- The Protagonist
With impressive and grand cinematography courtesy of Hoyte Van Hoytema, an interesting and droning score with reversed synth notes by Ludwig Göransson, Tenet remains tense and pacey, even if a lot of these details are quite on-the-nose and heavy handed. Using the palindromic nature of the film a slew of clever twists will surprise and thrill even if only for a few moments. As said earlier, it's like Bond was given the 'Inception' treatment but with a bleaker and grittier tone, closer to 'Memento'. I can't help but feel though that following these Nolan classics, 'Tenet' doesn't really bring much new stuff to the table. Yes, the action is explosive, well-paced and brutal, especially in scenes in which Kat is beaten by Sator (and that hurts like a cheese grater to the face). Yes, John David Washington is likeable as The Protagonist but he seems muted compared to his more emotive roles like Ron Stallworth in 'BlacKkKlansman'. Some viewers will love the weirdly choreographed inverted action sequences and palindromic concept but I can't help but think many will be a little disappointed by overly complicated expository scenes and the absence of a feeling of real involvement in the trials of these characters. Perhaps repeat viewings will reveal details and moments that we might miss on the first viewing but 'Tenet' could go a lot further to reel us into this backwards world.