In Christopher Nolan’s palindromically titled latest movie, two intelligence agents must wend their way through the high-level global machinations of a nuclear weapon–wielding billionaire who has learned how to bend time. If that sounds absurd, well, yes: Occasionally, for all its seriousness, Tenet can feel like Timecop with a superiority complex.
John David Washington, known only as The Protagonist, is brought into a top-secret cabal working to stop the literal destruction of the planet through means of an “inverted” bomb. That is to say: In this world, objects and, it turns out, people can actually exist on two planes, moving both forward and backward through time, simultaneously. This dynamic can be manipulated, and some very bad people know how to do so — namely Andrei Sator, played by a silly-accented Kenneth Branagh as a Bond-villain-esque Russian mastermind. At least initially, this “temporal inversion” is a generous platform for plot trickery and an even better one for action sequences. Bullets surge backward, like the gun is swallowing them; hand-to-hand combat is on rewind and fast-forward; explosions can be funneled back into their bombs. This means a lot of grinding, inventive sound design, as wind moves in the wrong direction and debris flies in reverse; the soundtrack is accordingly and throbbingly unpleasant. Its efficacy is hard to deny.
The Protagonist and his British compatriot Neil (a foppish Robert Pattinson) fight their way through London, Mumbai, and numerous other far-flung locales by way of arms dealers and art forgeries in order to find and entrap their man, eventually looping back in on themselves in multiple situations. They enlist the help of Sator’s estranged wife, Kat, a well-cast Elizabeth Debicki as a Hitchcock-style blonde with sleek, long-limbed physicality and real upper-crust chilliness. But Washington and Pattinson are, far and away, the most compelling parts of the film, adding some sorely needed humanity and sparkle to Nolan’s proceedings by sheer force of charisma and the help of some stunningly well-tailored suits. Although the pair are mostly ciphers, they bring zest to their roles amid a byzantine story. Washington in particular, off the back of his performance in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, proves himself a worthy inheritor of his father’s crown as a movie star with debonair gravitas.
Some of the best sequences in Tenet are genuinely thrilling: a brutal fight in a kitchen featuring a cheese grater; a tractor-trailer dustup and reverse car chase, reminiscent of a Michael Mann film; and maybe one of cinema’s most dramatically overblown diversion tactics, involving a freight plane and some gold bullion. But as the conspiracy moves in concentric circles and curlicues — in a sense, inverting itself — what was a novelty at the outset becomes more and more of a drag. Time travel paradoxes, quantum physics, and “temporal pincer movements” are explained in increasingly dull expository scenes (some even involving literal visual aids), causing audience confusion to bleed into indifference and finally into boredom.
The temporal maneuvers and slippages that worked in Dunkirk — a film about a move-it-or-lose-it evacuation operating on multiple fronts — seem more arbitrary in Tenet, twisted to the the whims of its writer-director, who seems to overestimate a viewer’s willingness to keep deciphering his mathematically oriented narrative loops. As complex missions, backwards-speaking, and new sets of random rules appear, the film becomes willfully — almost perversely — mystifying. The action begins to feel assaultive, replacing novelty with sensory bombardment in a final military-style raid in which the various parties become hopelessly tangled.
Complexity for complexity’s sake is seemingly at the heart of Tenet. It is mostly entertaining but undeniably baffling: Many will return to its intricacies in order to make sense of it. It is ready-made for endless Youtube explanations and theories. Near the close of the film, The Protagonist tells Branagh’s super-villain that what’s wrong with him is that he “doesn’t believe in anything outside himself.” Funny enough, Nolan is committed to a similar rationale: He is enraptured by his own cleverness, ready to pummel and dazzle his audience into abject submission. Anything to distract from the fact that that Tenet is a locked puzzle box with nothing inside.