Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” might be a work of genius, but it’s hard to tell. The director’s latest film, a nod to the espionage genre with his own twist, is a Gordian knot of a film, from its very twisty plot to the ins and outs of its execution. There’s a lot to unpack in this movie, for better and for worse.
The film starts in a conventional way, with an unnamed CIA operative — played by John David Washington — on a mission in the Ukraine. It goes south and he’s put into a position where he must either take a suicide pill or compromise his team. He chooses the former, but is surprised when he actually wakes up afterward.
He is told by a mysterious handler that the pills were actually a test to see who could make the ultimate sacrifice. Since our protagonist passed, he’s given a new mission. Objects have been showing up lately that are “inverted,” or going against the usual flow of time and hinting of some sort of temporal destruction in the future. The agent is tasked with tracking down where these items might be coming from and stop what happened before it happened.
The plot is quintessential Nolan, taking a conventional genre and spinning it off into some new, low-key science fiction territory. “Tenet” is to the spy genre what Nolan’s “Inception” was for the heist genre. And that’s the first layer of the Gordian knot. As we get deeper and deeper into “inversion,” it gets a little hard to keep track of everything that’s happening. For most people it will take multiple viewings to follow how the story played out exactly. That’s not necessary a bad thing, and Nolan is known for not shying away from complexity. Just be prepared going in that it will not be straightforward.
Further down the knot twists tighter when you get into the technical aspects of how this plays out on screen. The effects of this are hands down stunning. Watching car crashes and fights front ways and back is almost mesmerizing as you see effects before causes. The technical team gets full marks for how they brought this vision to life.
However, in one important way the movie falls completely flat. If you’ve ever wondered why there is an Academy Award for Sound Mixing, this movie shows you what happens when it’s done poorly. Quite simply, it is hard to hear the dialogue. It’s always constantly competing with music, background noise or characters wearing masks. Supposedly this was a conscious decision, but the effect is nothing short of ruinous for the audience. You may want to watch it a second time to understand the plot, but on that viewing you are definitely going to demand subtitles. Having a complicated plot without the benefit of understanding everything the characters say is just a giant black mark on the film.
It’s a double shame too, because there is some good acting to be had. Relative newcomer Washington is a presence on film as an almost American version of James Bond. The surrounding cast, including Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh also have gravitas, but it is hampered by not being able to fully comprehend any of them.
Nolan has been one of my favorite directors for years now, and you might remember that I gave both “Inception” and “Dunkirk” top marks as being expertly crafted films utilizing non-traditional storytelling. But it feels like in “Tenet” that he might have flown a little too close to the sun and what we are left with is something that is partially melted. You will have questions as you exit the theater. However, I’m willing to bet my opinion, and possibly yours, will improve with repeated viewings — that is, as long as I can get some subtitles.
David Rookhuyzen is a freelance movie reviewer for the Green Valley News.