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‘Tenet’ near-effortlessly blends complex time inversion shenanigans with stylish espionage capers

‘Tenet’ near-effortlessly blends complex time inversion shenanigans with stylish espionage capers

‘Tenet’ near-effortlessly blends complex time inversion shenanigans with stylish espionage capers
September 03
16:30 2020

“There’s a cold war, cold as ice. All I have for you is a gesture, in combination with a word — Tenet.”

Following an operation gone wrong, an unnamed agent (John David Washington) is recruited by the mysterious titular organization, Tenet, to investigate Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who may be dealing in weapons that appear to be “inverted,” reversing the flow of their bullets through time. With his handler, Neil (Robert Pattinson), and Sator’s estranged wife (Elizabeth Debicki), they uncover people who appear to move backward in time, communications from the future and a mindblowing doomsday scenario.

Tenet” is the newest brain-shatterer from Christopher “I can do whatever I want now” Nolan, Of course, expectations are as high as ever, especially with it arriving just after the tenth anniversary of Nolan’s beloved “Inception,” with lead Washington even labeling “Tenet” an “in-law” to “Inception” during an interview with Esquire. So, how does this introspective blockbuster stack up against Nolan’s best?

“Tenet” is really damn good, it might even be one of Nolan’s best. These are his most mind-blowing effects to date and by far his most intricate plot. Still, something’s missing, though it’s not in the cast performances.

Continuing on from his breakout role in “BlacKkKlansman,” Washington brings his physical A-game to his unnamed character, the literal “Protagonist.” This time he blends that sly confidence with a sharp physicality, Washington giving as much as he can to an honestly barebones character. It also helps he does his own stunts.

Pattinson has been on a winning streak for years and “Tenet” isn’t slowing that streak down one bit. Mixing a relaxed charisma with a “devil may care” attitude and sharp intellect, Pattinson steals a couple of scenes as Neil, an intelligent and daring intelligence agent whose skills rival the Protagonist’s own. If there are any more doubts about his Batman, this plus “Good Time” and “The Lighthouse” should put them all to rest.

Branagh just hams it up as rogue Russian Sator, basically reprising his role from “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” However, there’s a much more pronounced menace to him here. Even when he’s devouring the scenery, he’s a terrifyingly unhinged narcissist, and a third act plot reveal only adds to his menace. He’s like a hammier Bond villain, but the scope of the story and his volatile behavior makes these tendencies only more horrifying,

Nolan also fleshes out the mechanics of inversion beyond his characters chatting, with attention to detail regarding a bullet’s flight path, the effects of scorching explosions becoming chilling implosions and even gunfight tactics as the characters fight opponents in separate time paths. “Tenet’s” world feels real, not only because so much thought is put into how everything looks, but how the rules around inversion work and how the characters interact with them. Even the more out-there moments feel grounded and even somewhat mundane because of the pains to account for everything.

This follows through even to the climax, as Nolan seemingly filters vivid memories of early Bond flicks through an intense LSD trip. While the first hour is essentially an exposition-laden info dump, “Tenet” ramps up the excitement in its second half. The more subtle, hardboiled investigatory first half gives way to a bombastic, yet grounded approach to action through a time-inverted lens. The dedication to all the bells and whistles should be applauded.

All of this is underscored by Ludwig Göransson’s excellent, pulse-pounding electric soundtrack. While some will miss longtime collaborator Hans Zimmer, Görannsson accentuates tense scenes with heavy pulsing and base to add an extra layer of “oof” and stress, while earlier scenes trading in intrigue carry underlying synths, further complimenting the slick production.

Sadly, poor sound mixing means Görannsson’s stellar work can become outright oppressive and in the worst way possible. The mixing often drowns out plot-essential information in cacophonies of at times blaring music, gunfire and explosions. With a plot as cerebral as “Tenet’s,” being able to ensure the audience can clearly register what is being said so they can follow along is important above nearly everything else. I really shouldn’t have had a headache at two separate points just trying to follow the dialogue, especially in a film where following what characters are saying is important to understanding the final outcome.

There’s also a distinct lack of three-dimensional qualities to the characters. Washington’s character doesn’t even get a name, and while he does bring a lot of charm like he did with “BlacKkKlansman,” there’s not much going under the surface with him. Same with Pattinson’s Neil, though a near-the-end twist lends him a bit more resonance. Debicki’s Catherine also gets a subplot involving her son, but hers is undercooked and kind of tired.

While I love having such an intricate blockbuster like “Tenet,” the impact is a bit undercut by the lack of Nolan’s attention to his characters. Here, however, it gets to the point where the Protagonist and co. feel more like near-soulless vessels traveling through written narratives rather than people working through grave stakes. The only thing keeping them from being completely bland are the actors’ own natural charisma, Washington and Pattinson especially.

While “Tenet” is likely toward the middle of Nolan’s filmography in terms of quality, it’s spectacle often threatens to overwhelm any humanity to its characters and story. While Nolan absolutely enthralls in the ideas he tackles, the barebones humanity may leave some out in the cold. Regardless, “Tenet” is another trippy success from one of today’s most distinctive directors, one with the focused vision and attentiveness to keep them coming.

Still, it’s really not worth seeing in the middle of a pandemic.

Final rating: 4/5

Featured image: Courtesy Warner Bros.

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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