A ruthless, calculating, and impossibly opulent globe-trotting espionage piece with a crafty sci-fi element, Christopher Nolan’s latest $200 million epic should just be titled Nolan Uncut.
On the page, If ever there was a movie made for me, if ever there was a film that feeds so pointedly off of my primal filmic love as a cinephile (love for grand filmmaking and the spy genre), it would have to be Tenet. As I sat in the theater ready to watch my first Christopher Nolan joint since 2017, I quickly learned that Tenet wasn’t going to be the easy 10/10 lay-up I was expecting. It wasn’t going to take it easy on me. This was a living and breathing beast of an experience, one that I had to personally wrestle with (it left me with a few scars after our first tussle) and bring into submission after two viewings before I could feel confident on where I stood.
Armed with a word – Tenet – our protagonist played by John David Washington (A man-with-no-name, James-Bond type with a heart) traverses a twilight world of espionage and shady international actors all while dealing with an invention from the future that has allowed people to reverse their own entropy through inversion. Robert Pattinson plays Neil, the Protagonist’s right-hand man, as well as the heart of the movie. He’s the Nolan stand-in telling people what to do while dressing in some incredibly nice suits and sporting Nolan’s signature floppy hairstyle. He’s a wily character, one who is clearly Nolan’s favorite, and he brings the movie to life during a rewatch.
A fascinating aspect about Nolan’s work is that his obsessions deceptively bleed through the massive popcorn films he makes. Just Like Tarantino loves to play with history, violence, and the western genre, Nolan loves to play with time, the crime/spy genre, stories with dead wives, and his idealized version of himself.
In Inception he sees himself as the master thief, placing the idea in our minds that movies are dreams and that reality doesn’t matter. With Tenet, it feels like he sees himself as a master of international espionage (and complex physics) wooing us back into reality and encouraging us to come back to faith, even as all these flashy things occupy the screen. It feels like he’s having a dialogue with the Nolan of 10 years ago about the value of reality against ‘the dream’. Tenet takes the theme of people moving backward and forwards in time and places its main characters in the middle of a volatile spot where they must believe that reality and good wins, and not ‘the dream’.
Tenet’s villain Andrei Sator, played by Kenneth Branagh in a scene-chewing role, plays a Russian oligarch and arms dealer who’s all about ‘the dream’. He has deluded himself into believing that he is a God, denying reality in the process. Humans are finite, and Sator is trying everything in his power to lie to himself and those around him that he isn’t. I feel like Nolan is saying that, looking at Inception again, maybe Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) lack of care for reality (symbolized by him moving past his totem at the end of Inception) might not be the functional worldview we should aspire to. I think what Nolan is trying to say here is that the most effective worldview to operate in is not the delusion: ‘the dream’. True reality requires faith because we love to lie to ourselves…just as Cobb does at the end of Inception. And similarly, true faith only works when we understand reality.
We live in God’s world, and in God’s world, we must operate in the confines of reality to function. Confusion only stems from us and the sin in our hearts, not God himself. He has revealed himself in special and general revelation all around us, but our sin-sick hearts hate the truth. I hated the truth: that I am not my own savior and that I have fallen infinitely short of a righteous and holy God… until God Himself redeemed this rebel.
The first time I watched Tenet it was a middling bore. But then, it crackled to life the second time as I saw the crucial themes listed above finally fall into place. I thought a modern hero of mine had made a massive big-budget blunder! But, like a palindrome, this is a film that only works when you have the whole picture. Starting from the beginning makes sense once you’ve seen the other side. It’s a film that requires a minimum of two watches. Not just because of the complicated mechanics of inversion (I think most people will be able to understand that) but to understand the emotional core of the film that undergirds the entire experience.
Even after two screenings, I’m not going to say I understand all the mechanics of inversion, but I do know that the emotional through-line clicked into place for me the second time around. JDW’s Protagonist character did not work because I needed a reason to believe why he was doing what he was doing. Once I got to the end, it all made sense.
I loved the fact that he was nameless and a brutal killer with a warm central core, something that James Bond-like characters don’t always have, and during that first watch It felt like the only time had any emotional connection to him was at the end of the movie. By then, it was too late for me to care. However, that emotional connection I got at the end of the first watch colored every scene during the second. Because of that, I’m extremely thankful I wrestled with Tenet again after sustaining a Nolan-beatdown before writing this review. I needed to have faith in Nolan, and I didn’t.
Now, all that said, this is still Nolan at his Nolaniest. This is an auteur at the height of his powers with a major studio backing his every move, willing to write a blank check for anything he does. This also means it is him at his most obtuse. One of the most frustrating aspects of the film, and I’m not being excessive when I say this, is that 30% of the dialogue is unintelligible (this is par for the course for Nolan, just on a far more exaggerated scale with Tenet). It’s almost like he’s trolling his fans with a $200-million-spy-thriller and Michael Mann lovechild. The result? You can’t understand half of what the characters are saying. Unless Nolan has a hearing problem, only he could pull off such a grift under a studio’s nose in today’s franchise heavy world.
Another major issue with Tenet is that, despite the stunning action on display, that first screening was an absolute bore. I’m a sucker for spies scaling buildings, temporal pincer’s (just you wait and see what Nolan has crafted with that), and beating bad guys up in a kitchen, but the emotional payoff of the film, again sneakily designed as a palindrome, only works when you watch it a second time… leaving the first watch the worst watch. Essentially, as an audience member, you must work for the emotional payoff here, and it was clear after the second watch that this was going to be rewatchable for years to come. Something that I believe will only rise in esteem for me as I watch it more.
Critics have been saying that this film has too much exposition and to that, I ask, “Is this the first Christopher Nolan film you’ve seen?” The guy loves exposition and I love hearing his exposition because his worlds are vibrant and textured. These are worlds that I want to have exposed to me through dialogue, as Nolan sets the boundaries for each film that he births. Exposition is only bad when it takes the place of the visual image and mise-en-scene. Nolan shows a lot here and tells only what is necessary. His worlds just require a little more necessary exposition than others.
The humor, when you can hear what the characters are saying, also works to great effect. Although, I think having an extra writer to punch up some of his humor couldn’t hurt. He works best when he has some help from a writer like his brother. Someone who can tell him no instead of nothing but yes all the time. When Kenneth Branagh talked about Christopher Nolan’s directing style in an interview with Collider, he related him to a footballer who sees the game at a different speed and can take control of it because he’s thinking two steps ahead. That he is good at all aspects of the game and has a unique knack, something that only the best has, for slowing the game down. I have to agree with Branagh on that thoughtful analogy, though I think having a writer next to him who can tell him no will only benefit Him in the long run.
Tenet is Nolan Uncut and acts as his Django Unchained, Casino, or North By Northwest. It’s excessive, and an offense to your senses sometimes, even as we get to see all of his loves in one beautifully adorned espionage package. He has intricately designed a package that I am increasingly excited to revisit after the paradigm-shifting rewatch I experienced yesterday.
Towards the end of the film, when our protagonist asks Neil, “’Faith’. What do you mean by that” and Neil responds with “Reality” the film finally clicked. The themes about faith and reality not operating as antagonists but as friends hit home with me as someone who subscribes to the Christian worldview. See, Nolan’s latest film is one of those rare films that grow in estimation. I would rather have a bad experience during my first watch and a good experience every rewatch than the reverse. Tenet is that kind of wholly original experience needed to bring people back into a dark room with a big screen and a bunch of strangers, after six months of not doing so, not just once, but multiple times.
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Carter Bennett is a Contributor and Cohost at Cinematic Doctrine. He’s a ravenous cinephile who loves looking at the film industry through the lens of a Christian worldview. He never went to film school, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming a certified Film Junkie! His ultimate desire is to faithfully give an account of his savior Jesus Christ through the world of filmmaking!