Tenet: Stylish, Seductive, And Upon Reflection, Rather Silly

Izzie Glover 9 November 2020
Image Credit: IndieWire

If nothing else, Tenet has the capacity to revolutionise suit-wearing in men of all personalities. If you are plucky (read: American), loyal, and very much Not a British Snob, then John David Washington as the conveniently named The Protagonist sports the ideal pairing of sharply fitted blazers with dress down polos and practical boots. If, on the other hand, you find your charming Oscar Wilde sensibilities often clash with your in-depth understanding of temporal physics and hand-to-hand combat, Robert Pattinson as Neil manages to marry the two with a double-breasted suit and a ridiculous silk scarf. If, however, you are a Russian oligarch hellbent on destroying both yourself, your wife, and the world, then you must wear an ill-fitting shirt that is cavalierly unbuttoned at the top, obviously.

But this is besides the point. Christopher Nolan’s 11th release, dubbed by some as the saviour of in-person cinema, and by others as the silver screen’s ‘sacrificial lamb’, takes inspiration from the unsung literary figure, the palindrome, to create a movie that is deliciously mind-bending, deftly produced, and suavely acted – if you’re not a realist, that is. Tenet is built on the theory that time is not an arrow, but a manipulatable flow, so that, handily, when people from the future are trying to destroy the past, a quick nip into an inverting ‘Turnstile’ will get one started on fixing that problem. What strikes some critics as the film’s crucial flaw, this is utterly unrealistic, makes light of Nolan’s feat: he has managed to produce an engaging, action fuelled saga, both thought provoking and imbued with poetry and maternal concerns, on the basis of a theory that two tripping teenagers might dream up one smoky night and subsequently lose their minds over for exactly two and a half hours. Tenet, as with Nolan’s other mind-benders (Inception, Memento) awakens that latent blazed teenager within us, and then astounds them with cleverly thought through moments where inverted time meets chronological time – The Protagonist is able to have a fight with his inverted self, both knowingly and unknowingly, for example – and, somehow, World War III is avoided.

Because of this invoking of the teenage, it’s hard to say anything about the intricacies of the film’s plot and the (occasionally) heavy handed symbolism, like the intertwining of fingers throughout that reminds us of the forwards and backwards of time, and palindromes, that isn’t simply sick! But there are several moments of noteworthy brilliance. Firstly, Robert Pattinson. The general disdain he as an actor brings to the plight of acting means the film is driven away from pure Action to the realm of the almost self-aware. He is the perfect vessel to guide The Protagonist through his woefully brief induction into a vague strand of the CIA tasked with the problem of bullets that shoot in reverse. Whenever The Protagonist is perplexed by the task he must undertake, baffled by his strange findings or dismissive of these kooky brits he has been forced to deal with, Pattinson’s Neil offers him, and the equally bewildered audience, a wry arm round the shoulder and an explanation that is entertaining if not even more confusing. Elizabeth Debicki, as the wife of the villainous oligarch Sator (Kenneth Branagh) stuns as she both grants the film its emotional core and orchestrates one unbelievably sublime yacht killing.

The film’s moments of action are variable, ranging from Pattinson and Washington having to hold their breath for a Really Long Time (actually rather impressive) to what amounts to a glorified game of paintball (or the ‘temporal pincer movement’; a bit boring, really). I was also left disappointed by the fact that there were precisely three women in it. Mr Peanutbutter’s words from Bojack Horseman spring to mind: Is my problem with women any movie directed by Christopher Nolan? Because yes, women are involved, but it’s never really about women.

Ultimately, Tenet, like the palindrome, is self-contained. The film stretches backwards and forwards within itself, but it doesn’t extend beyond the credits. As such, you might vaguely wonder whether the film is allusive – the US everyman is joined begrudgingly with a Brit in a fight against a Russian (sound familiar?) – or if it links to environmentalism, but the thought doesn’t stick with you long-term. Despite the ludicrousness and the lack of women, Nolan excites something youthful and awestruck within that spurs you, once the film has ended, to tell people that Tenet was ‘cool’.