Spoiler warning: This post discusses the ending of Tenet in detail.
Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is a movie so uninterested in backstory that its lead character is called simply “the Protagonist.” But as a foppishly charming British man with a graduate degree in physics might say, nature abhors a vacuum. So, presented with a surfeit of information on every character who’s not Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh, viewers have begun to speculate on their secret histories: a fertile topic, since the movie’s time-travel — sorry, inversion — technology means that anyone can come from anywhere … and anywhen.
Of these, one character’s backstory has proven especially ripe for conjecture: Robert Pattinson’s Neil, whom many fans are convinced is actually the all-grown-up version of Max, the young son of Evil Russian Kenneth Branagh and Sad Elizabeth Debicki, whom Tenet fans know will also be killed if Branagh’s villain succeeds in his plan to reverse the flow of time and destroy reality.
Yes, that’s right, we’ve got a fan theory twofer — a This Character Is Secretly The Older Version Of Another Character and a This Character Is Secretly The Child Of This Other Character. Is there any merit to this particular theory, or is this another Meera-Is-Jon-Snow’s-Twin situation? Let’s run down the evidence in favor first:
We don’t know when in the timeline Neil is “from.”
At the end of the film, after they’ve met, traveled together through time, and saved the present from being wiped out by the future, but before he reverses through time to take a bullet for him, Neil reveals to John David Washington’s Protagonist that, from his perspective, they’ve actually known each other for quite some time: “This is the end of a beautiful friendship.” (Nolan tips us off in their first meeting, when Neil already knows the Protagonist doesn’t drink on the job.) A future version of the Protagonist recruited Neil into Tenet, and crucially, we’re not told when in the timeline that meeting happened. Did the Protagonist travel back in time and meet Young Neil (not that one) in the past, or did this meeting occur in the future, with Neil then inverting to the present? If so, that would mean there’s also a child version of Neil running around during the events of the film. And you know who else is a child?
Neil’s “Britishness” dial is turned up to 11, just like Max’s mother.
This one is admittedly a little more anecdotal, but hear me out. Nolan has never been one to shy away from classic British iconography, and both Neil and Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat seem to embody separate, but related, archetypes of Britishness. (Debicki herself is Australian.) He’s a classic English gentleman, which means he wears Saville Row suits, flouncily murmurs things like “Don’t be so dramatic,” and always seems to be slightly drunk; she’s more of a Sloane Ranger type, an art auctioneer who you can just imagine owns an entire closet-full of Barbour jackets. (The character’s aesthetics, combined with the fact that she’s trying to escape her marriage to an older man she despises, unintentionally foreshadow Debicki’s next role.) I don’t want to discount the possibility that this is just how Christopher Nolan characters are, but it’s still worth noting that, despite not interacting much, the two do seem to be linked visually.
What is “Neil” backwards?
This is where we get into true galaxy-brain territory. Some fans have speculated that “Max” is short for “Maximilien.” Reverse the last four letters of that name the same way our heroes travel backwards through time, and what do you get? N-E-I-L. This is a true classic of a particular kind of circular Internet reasoning, where you invent a fact about a character (usually a secret name), and then treat the thing that you yourself made up as evidence your theory is correct — I love it so much. I will say this for this hypothesis: That a madman who wants to kill a bunch of people for the greater good would choose this particular spelling for his son’s name feels disturbingly plausible.
And uh, that’s basically it. But longstanding theories have certainly been spun out of less, so let’s check out the counter-evidence to see which is more plausible.
Neil doesn’t seem to care much about Kat.
There’s a lot of business in Tenet about how time-spies keep a lot of secrets from each other, and only give out information on a need-to-know basis, which: sure. However, if Neil really was supposed to be Kat’s secret son, wouldn’t it make sense to include scenes where they two interact in a significant way, if only to mine drama out of the tension? That doesn’t happen. Neil happily works alongside Kat, but he evinces no strong feelings towards her at all; it’s always the Protagonist who’s pushing to include her in the plan, or carve out some protection for her. And Kat, whose love for her son is literally her only character trait, shows a similar lack of interest in Neil.
The math doesn’t quite work.
Robert Pattinson is 34. Laurie Shepherd, who plays Max, is 10. We know that when you invert yourself, time passes for you at the same rate; to go back a week, you have to spend a week inverted. Now, whether you age forward or backwards while inverted is an open question, but either way, it’s dicey. If you age forwards, Neil would have had to enter a Turnstile in his early twenties, then spend over a decade inverted to make up the age gap. And if you age backward, adult-Neil would have turned back into a child himself, which obviously did not happen.
Finally, Neil himself implies he’s not from the future.
In his big speech at the end, Neil tells the Protagonist, “You have a future in the past,” from which we can infer that their first meeting happened when an older Protagonist traveled back in time to set up Tenet before the events of the film. It’s possible that he’s purely talking about his own past, but if that were so, he’d probably phrase it more clearly? It feels like solid evidence that Neil is what he looks like — an adult who’s aged normally, and not a time-traveling child.