The plot of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet has been one of 2020’s most intriguing mysteries. But with the film making its belated arrival on U.S. shores this week, it’s one that has gone unresolved: Turns out the plot of Tenet is also a mystery to people who have seen Tenet. Thanks to frenetic cinematography, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it editing, and a reliance on verbal exposition that’s marred by the movie’s muffled sound mix, even those who like the film have to admit they have no idea what’s going on half the time. So as a helpful reference for viewers looking to make sense of what they just saw (plus people who don’t feel comfortable braving a multiplex just yet but are still curious), I’ve created this beat-by-beat explanation of exactly what happens in Tenet. This is not an easy task if you’ve seen the film just once, and I’m grateful to all the theorists over at Reddit for their diagrams and summaries.
(Note: Because this movie does silly stuff like call its main character “the Protagonist,” I’ll be avoiding character names altogether.)
Before we begin, there are two things that don’t get explained until later in the film but are worth covering up top. The first is that this whole movie takes place in a world where the future has declared war on the present because it’s upset about climate change. To do so, it uses a technology called “inversion,” by which objects and people can travel backward in the flow of time by reversing their entropy. This means that time-travel in this movie works according to a “closed-loop” theory — i.e., everything that has happened in the past has already happened. Think Primer, or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban if you’re nasty.
Okay, so: John David Washington is a CIA agent looking for a MacGuffin during a false-flag terror attack at the Kiev Opera. In the chaos, his life is saved by a mysterious figure in black, who kills a henchman with a bullet that travels backward. But Washington’s cover is blown, and he’s captured by the baddies. He takes a cyanide pill to avoid giving up his secrets.
Except the suicide pill is actually a test! Washington wakes up on a boat, where his boss explains that his new mission is to join something called Tenet, which we know is the name of the movie but he doesn’t. Then the CIA puts Washington inside a windmill. The reason he has to live in a windmill is to get his present self out of the way so his future self can operate freely during this part of the timeline, but they don’t explain this in the moment so it seems like they just want him to get really good at pull-ups.
After getting his lats nice and strong, Washington leaves the windmill and meets Clémence Poésy from Harry Potter, who is tasked with delivering some equally magical exposition. The bullet Washington encountered at the opera is just one of many “inverted” objects that scientists have discovered traveling backward through time. People going forward in time can interact with them, but it’s weird: To pick an inverted object up, you have to imagine yourself dropping it. “Don’t think it, feel it,” Poésy says. This is the movie’s mission statement.
Washington traces the inverted bullets to an arms dealer in Mumbai. To get a meeting, he needs a sidekick. Enter Robert Pattinson in a performance modeled on the late Christopher Hitchens. (That’s not a joke. Or if it is, not one by me.) Pattinson knows Washington’s favorite drink, even though it wasn’t listed on his Hinge profile. Anyway, they bungee jump into the arms dealer’s lair, where they learn three surprising facts: One, the dealer, played by Bollywood actress Dimple Kapadia, is a woman! Two, she knows about Tenet. And three, she sold the bullets to the movie’s villain, Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh, who is acting as the future’s representative in its war on the present. She explains that Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh communicates with the future by leaving messages for “posterity.”
Because this is a Christopher Nolan movie, there’s a scene in which our hero has afternoon tea with Michael Caine. Caine explains that the way to get to Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh is through his wife, Sad Elizabeth Debicki, who is being blackmailed by her husband over a fake painting she sold him. Caine gives Washington another fake painting so they can have a meet-cute. It works, and Sad Elizabeth Debicki gives Washington her entire life story, including telling him about a nice yacht trip in Vietnam that ended when Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh told her she could leave him as long as she didn’t mind never seeing her son again. After she refused, she says, she saw a mysterious woman jump off the boat and envied her husband’s supposed mistress for her freedom.
Then John David Washington beats some guys up with a cheese grater.
As part of a quid pro quo with Sad Elizabeth Debicki, Washington and Pattinson decide to steal the forged painting. It’s located in a free port (a real thing where rich people can secure their valuables without paying taxes on them) at the Oslo airport. They pose as fancy men while their friend, played by Himesh Patel, the hot dude from Yesterday, crashes a cargo plane into the airport. But before they can get the painting, two masked guys — one moving forward, one moving backward — appear from a mysterious portal in Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh’s vault. If you’ve been paying close attention to everyone’s height, the identity of these guys should be pretty clear, but we’ll get to that. Anyway, Washington is about to kill his guy, until Pattinson stops him. The mysterious masked men get away, and anyway, there’s no painting in the vault. How did Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh know they were coming?
It’s all very confusing, but luckily they go back to Mumbai and Dimple Kapadia explains it for them: The device in the vault was an invention from the future called a Turnstile, which allows people to invert themselves and travel backward in time. Thus, the two people in the vault were actually one person, flowing backward and forward out of the moment that he entered the device. Trippy! Also, Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh was the one behind the terror attack at the opera, and he’s still on the hunt for the MacGuffin.
Luckily, Nolan gives us a break from the complicated science stuff in the form of a 15-minute Mediterranean interlude, in which Tenet gets to dress up in Talented Mr. Ripley drag — boating trips, cashmere polos, expensive gowns, how divine. Washington gets in good with Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh, first by dropping a reference to the opera, then by saving his life after Sad Elizabeth Debicki throws him off a catamaran, and finally by offering to help him steal the MacGuffin, which is apparently plutonium. We also learn Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh’s backstory: He grew up at an abandoned Soviet nuclear facility, where he discovered a cache of gold and a message from the future. (Washington witnesses him receive a shipment of inverted gold bars, which is how the future has been paying him to do evil stuff in the present.) All of this takes place on a yacht, where the engine noise makes most of the dialogue unintelligible, but the sound mix is clear enough for us to hear Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh growl like a tiger and tell Sad Elizabeth Debicki, “If I can’t have you, no one can.”
Now things start to get really hard to follow, so bear with me. Washington and Pattinson successfully pull off a highway heist in Tallinn, only to discover that the MacGuffin is not plutonium at all but something timey-wimey. Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh and his henchmen show up and there’s a car chase. They’re all wearing oxygen masks and traveling backward through time! Inverted Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh threatens to shoot Sad Elizabeth Debicki unless Washington gives him the case containing the MacGuffin, which he does. At the same time, an inverted silver car uncrashes and joins the chase. (You will recall it as the big showstopping moment from the trailer.) Inverted Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh tries to kill Sad Elizabeth Debicki in a car crash, but Washington saves her. They’re both captured by Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh’s henchmen. Pattinson says he’s going to call in “the cavalry.”
Washington wakes up in a warehouse next to another Turnstile, where Inverted Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh uses a walkie-talkie to translate his backward speech into regular English, like he’s John Lennon during the recording of Revolver. He says the MacGuffin wasn’t in the case and asks Washington where it is. Washington refuses to tell him, and so Inverted Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh reverse-shoots Sad Elizabeth Debicki with an inverted bullet. (We’ve been told inverted bullets are very dangerous to forward-time people, as if regular bullets were not.) Washington lies and says he hid the MacGuffin in the glove compartment of his car. Just then, a forward-time version of Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh enters the room, but before he can do more Evil Russian stuff, he’s chased into the Turnstile by a squadron of troops led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Inverted Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh walks backward into the Turnstile too. (When you enter a Turnstile going forward, it looks like two people get sucked into it; when you enter one going backward, it looks like two people are coming out of it.)
Aaron Taylor-Johnson reveals that he and his troops are “posterity” — soldiers from the future working for the Tenet organization. Washington wonders how Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh seems to know everything that’s going to happen, and he accuses Pattinson of being a mole. Taylor-Johnson explains that, nope, the baddies are actually sending half their henchmen forward in time and half backward, executing a “temporal pincer movement.” Weird! Anyway, Washington has the bright idea of following Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh through the Turnstile; that way, he can get the MacGuffin and Sad Elizabeth Debicki won’t die, because her body will be inverted, thus making it just a normal bullet wound to the stomach, no big deal. The troops give him a crash course in Inversion 101: You’ve got to wear an oxygen mask because your reversed lungs can’t breathe normal air, and whatever you do, don’t physically touch your past self. Also, every heat transfer works the opposite of the way it normally would. It’s just physics, okay?
So Washington steps through the Turnstile and starts going backward in time. He steps into a car outside the warehouse … which is the same silver car that was in the chase earlier! (That an inverted person driving a car makes the car itself inverted is one of those things you just have to go with.) He replays the previous car chase in reverse, but this time we see something we didn’t in the first go-round: the MacGuffin leaping out of the silver car and into forward-Washington’s hands — which means that, in forward-time, he threw it to his inverted self in the silver car. The silver car then crashes, in the same crash we saw happen in reverse earlier, and while Inverted Washington is trying to escape, Inverted Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh drops a lighter and sets the car aflame.
Except because Washington is inverted, the heat transfer actually works in reverse, and instead of being burned, he only gets hypothermia! He wakes up in an air-locked container ship, where Pattinson, Sad Wounded Elizabeth Debicki, and some of the troops are all traveling in reverse a week back in time to the Oslo airport so they’ll be able to use the Turnstile there to get themselves going forward again. They talk about time travel and the grandfather paradox — if they’re trying to stop the future from killing them in the past, doesn’t the fact that they still exist mean they succeeded? They resolve not to think about it too much.
(Sidebar: We also learn that Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh’s team has the MacGuffin, but we never see how they got it, a fact that has caused no small end of confusion among the Tenet fan base. In a forward-moving timeline, the last place we saw it was inside the silver car by the warehouse as Washington and his friends inverted; the most likely bet is that the bad guys who were moving forward in the temporal pincer movement, or an Uninverted Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh himself, picked it up from there.)
Now back to Oslo, and you can probably guess where this is going. The only time our heroes can sneak into Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh’s vault is the time they crashed the plane into the airport, which means that once Washington gets into the vault, he comes face-to-face with his past self, and we get the same fight we saw before, only in reverse. Luckily, since future Washington is wearing a full-on gimp suit, there’s no physical touching. (We also get a clearer view of why it looked as if reverse Washington was shooting his gun at forward Washington: He was actually trying to empty the clip so his past self couldn’t use it against him.) Washington gets into the Turnstile, after which he fights the past Pattinson, who figures out that he’s the future Washington but keeps the secret from past Washington because it would have been too much of a mindfreak. Inverted Pattinson and Inverted Sad Wounded Elizabeth Debicki go back through the Turnstile too, so now all our heroes are moving forward again. We’re on to the grand finale. Everyone gets to pass Go and collect $200 and is healed to full health.
Taking a page from J.K. Rowling’s book, Nolan decides to give us one last exposition dump before the climax. Washington catches up with Dimple Kapadia again, and this time she tells him the MacGuffin is actually one of nine MacGuffins that stack up to form something called the Algorithm, which has the power to invert half the planet, thus ending existence as we know it. (They stack vertically; call it a “shish ke-bomb.”) The scientist who made the Algorithm regretted her creation so much that she killed herself, but, before she died, she sent each part of the Algorithm back in time, hiding them around the globe. And before you can say “Gee, that sounds like a Horcrux,” it turns out that Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh has assembled all nine pices of the Algorithm and is about to set them off. But where … and when?
Sad Healing Elizabeth Debicki decides she wants in on this exposition business too. She reveals that Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh is suffering from terminal cancer and is going back in time to find a happy memory to end his life in. What’s more, he’s got an Evil Fitbit that will trigger the Algorithm to go off at the moment of his death. (If he can’t be alive, no one can.) They realize his happiest memory is the yacht trip to Vietnam, which just so happened to be taking place at the exact same time as the opera attack and an unexplained explosion at the abandoned Soviet nuclear facility he grew up in. By Jove, that’s it!
Then it’s on to the climax, which takes place in two locations simultaneously. Before they get going, Washington gives Sad Healing Elizabeth Debicki a cell phone and tells her if she ever feels unsafe to leave a message “for posterity” stating her time and place. Then they split up. With the help of the hot guy from Yesterday, Sad Healed Elizabeth Debicki will sneak aboard the yacht and pretend to be her past self, stalling the version of Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh who arrives there from the future before he can kill himself. Meanwhile, Washington, Pattinson, and the Tenet army will attack the abandoned Soviet nuclear facility and try to disassemble the Algorithm. They form two groups: Washington and Taylor-Johnson are the red team, which does the assault going forward in time; Pattinson is on the blue team, which does it going backward. The teams then brief each other in their own temporal pincer movement.
This battle scene resembles the ending of Inception in that it’s a lot of guys running around shooting things and is filmed so chaotically that it’s almost impossible to tell what’s happening. The good news is, while there’s a lot going on, not much of it is actually that important. What you need to know is this: Washington and Taylor-Johnson are supposed to split off from the rest of the red team, go underground to where the Algorithm is, and nab it before it can be triggered with a bomb. Pattinson is supposed to be inverted with the rest of the blue team, but he decides to go rogue and uninverts, then reinverts himself multiple times during the battle.
Moving forward in time, the climax goes as follows: In Vietnam, Future Sad Elizabeth Debicki arrives on the yacht just after Past Sad Elizabeth Debicki has departed with her son and Past Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh has flown off in a helicopter. (Presumably to monitor the opera attack.) She encounters Future Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh and successfully convinces him that she’s her past self.
In Russia, the red and blue teams create their diversion. Traveling backward through the battle, inverted Pattinson sees the baddies setting up a trip wire at the entrance to the tunnel leading to the Algorithm. He uninverts himself and tries to warn Washington and Taylor-Johnson. They don’t hear him and set off the trip wire, which buries their path out. They keep going, but their path is blocked by a locked gate. On the other side is a henchman, the Algorithm, the bomb, and a blue-team corpse.
In Vietnam, Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh calls up Washington on a walkie-talkie and gives his version of Thanos’s “I am inevitable” monologue.
In Russia, as the bomb ticks toward zero and the henchman is about to shoot Washington, the corpse on the floor springs to life, blocks the bullet, opens the gate, then runs away in reverse. Washington beats up the henchman.
In Vietnam, Sad Elizabeth Debicki reveals the truth: She’s not Past Sad Elizabeth Debicki; she’s Future Sad Elizabeth Debicki, and like the Bens, she’s got the scars to prove it. She shoots Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh. But has she killed him too early?
In Russia, Washington and Taylor-Johnson get ahold of the Algorithm as the bomb is about to go off. Above them, Pattinson pulls them and the Algorithm out of the tunnel before the explosion, thanks to a chain that was there the whole time? It all happens very quickly, but who cares — the world has been saved!
In Vietnam, Sad Elizabeth Debicki is now Happy Elizabeth Debicki. She jumps off the yacht in triumph; her past self sees her and admires her freedom.
In Russia, Washington, Pattinson, and Taylor-Johnson separate the Algorithm into three parts and plan to split up. Taylor-Johnson suggests they each bury their part, then kill themselves to avoid giving up the locations. Pattinson gives his part to Washington and reveals that, from his perspective, they’ve actually known each other for years: Future Washington recruited past Pattinson into the Tenet organization. (Whether this happened in the timeline before or after the events of the film is unclear; many theories have sprung up on this subject.) Pattinson heads back to the Turnstile, and Washington sees that his backpack is the same as the corpse’s. Pattinson’s inverted self will run back into the tunnel, close the gate and then take the bullet. It’s also the same backpack that was seen on the mystery man in the opera house, which means there’s yet another version of Pattinson floating around the timeline saving Washington’s life there, too.
Some time later, Happy Elizabeth Debicki is dropping her son off at school when she gets a premonition of danger and calls the cell phone. She was correct — Dimple Kapadia is about to shoot her to tie up the “loose ends.” Having received the message, future Washington travels to that exact time and place and shoots Kapadia first, revealing that he’s the mastermind behind the entire operation.
And that’s Tenet! Any questions?