WARNING: contains spoilers.
“Don’t try to understand it.” This line, spoken in the film by Clémence Poésy, describes the entirety of Tenet almost perfectly.
In this daring suspenseful action-thriller, writer-director Christopher Nolan alters the notion of reality and interferes with the theories of time and motion in his newest film Tenet. He brings the concept of “time inversion” to the big screen, challenging viewers and grabbing their attention in this confusing, visual maze of a film. Through mesmeric cinematography and captivating visuals, Nolan brings the audience through a mental puzzle.
Tenet made its debut to theatres in Canada and the U.S. on Sept. 3, 2020, and will remain in theatres for a limited time only. The film is both written and directed by Nolan himself, and co-produced alongside Emma Thomas. It features the acting talents of John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, and Clémence Poésy.
The film follows a CIA agent, played by John David Washington, who is sent on a mission equipped with one word, “tenet”, to alter reality and time with the ultimate goal of preventing World War III. In the future, technology is invented that can invert time, allowing one to quite literally travel back in time. People can go backwards and forwards, both in regular time and in this new parallel that Nolan has created for his audience. Objects escape the natural logic of motion. Bullets defy their nature, as do boats, explosions, and cars.
Nolan delivers his cinematic style of story-telling as scenes go backwards and forwards, both reversing while also propelling the narrative of the story further. The use of these different time frames is what makes the film so different from others before it. By introducing the film through this non-linear method of storytelling, Nolan is able to create intrigue in the story, making the viewer feel that they need to keep watching in order to understand this newly founded concept of time inversion.
From Washington’s solemn composure to Debicki’s poise and elegance, there is a compelling depth to the actors’ performances. Then there is Neil, the charming British agent with a charismatic side that pairs with a sly sense of humour portrayed by Robert Pattinson. The actors overall brought the characters to life in their piercing execution. Debicki takes on the role of the estranged wife, Kat, who performs alongside the violent husband Andrei Sator, played by Kenneth Branagh. The abusive and alienated relationship between Kat and Sator brings an emotional element to a rather reserved story plot.
My main criticism is the confusing nature of the film. Some may not enjoy it due to the amount of uncertainty that it generates. The film presents a slow-paced start to the entire first half before we begin to get answers to questions we’ve been wondering about for the last hour and a half. To those who like to get in on the action and know what’s ahead of them, this film is not for you.
Adding further to the confusion, the dialogue was often difficult to hear, ultimately making the film more confusing — if that was even possible!
What’s more, there are certain parts to the story plot that felt underdeveloped. There is a vagueness to the mission which adds intrigue and mystery but also furthers the confusion and gives a sense of detachment from the film as a viewer.
The main character remains unnamed throughout the film and is referred to by the other characters only a handful of times as “The Protagonist.” It is up for debate whether or not this stylistic choice to leave the main character unnamed adds or takes away from the success of the film. It reinforces an interesting idea that the character’s identity may be lost, however, we are not given much background information on the character prior to his initial introduction.
Nonetheless, the complexity of the film is all-consuming. Nolan once again manages to manipulate the laws of time and explore unique realms as he brings together this mesmerizing cinematic production.