Tenet: Lesser Nolan is Still Quality(?) Cinema

Written & Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Michael Caine, Dimple Kapaida, Kenneth Branagh, Clemence Poesy, Himesh Patel, Martin Donovan, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson

Christopher Nolan doesn’t make easy films. Even his more straightforward war film Dunkirk has some layering to it that push it beyond your stock war film. His Batman films explore more nuance to the mythos.

I say that as an acknowledgement that this film isn’t a standard action film, not that we’re used to, anyway. I also say this as an acknowledgement that Nolan can sometimes be too clever for his own good. If you ever want to see Nolan being too clever for his own good, watch Tenet. I don’t think we’ve hit a situation of no one telling him no, like the Wachowski siblings. And I don’t think we’ve hit peak Nolan and he’s folded into himself and become some sort of self-parody, like Wes Anderson. I just think he got tunnel vision for telling a unique story, that he forgot to tell a good story.

This isn’t to say it’s a bad film. I think it’s quite good. Strong performances from the impressive cast, it is gorgeously shot, intricately layered, and really makes you think. But Nolan sacrifices character for wow factor. You get a decent character arc out of Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat, but everyone else just seems to exist for the story.

I’m not anticipating or expecting big elaborate backstories for every single character. I just felt Nolan could have made room for diving into the intricacies of the characters. To give them some motivation. To ground them and give them permanence in the film. Otherwise his film is just casually drifting from action piece to action piece like a high-concept Fast & Furious film. He has several very talented actors he just does absolutely nothing with, which seems like a waste.

More than anything, Tenet is an experience of a film. Does it always work? Not entirely. Nolan is a deliberate and stubborn artist. He will make his movies his way. Any technical specifications or issues or problems are likely there on purpose, and he has no intention of doing anything about them. The sound mixing is problematic. I didn’t have quite the same problem with it as others seemed to. But Nolan needs to get his head out of his ass. If no one can audibly understand your movies, you’re kind of missing the point. He says he wants to make experiential films, but if half the experience is unintelligible and unpleasant, what are we experiencing?

All of that acknowledged, it still has exhilarating moments that draw you in. He can still craft exciting cinema that remind you why he is one of the best, despite and in spite of his faults. The car heist/chase sequence is utterly fascinating, and the whole siege in the finale is a glorious sequence to behold. Nolan is hardline on practical effects when possible, and the choreography in making everything run backwards, practically, is beyond comparison.

It’s not his best film. It’s certainly not the best of the year. But it’s definitely one of the most divisive for my own self. I can’t figure out if I love it or hate it. There’s so much to not like about it, I can’t give it a glowing review and say I would recommend it. At the same time, there’s too much to enjoy, so I can’t in good conscience give it even a mediocre-to-bad recommendation.

I can’t say you’re going to love it. I can’t say you’re going to hate it. I can’t even say you’ll be meh on it. If you’re genuinely curious about it, give it a shot. Know that it might take a few rounds to fully appreciate. Or fully hate. I don’t know.

Tenet is a big question mark. At one point, Martin Donovan’s character tell’s John David Washington’s protagonist “Tenet is a game you don’t even know you’re playing.” Or something to that effect. So maybe Tenet is just Christopher Nolan’s big budget, high concept adaptation of The Game, which I’m sorry I just made you lose.

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