Hutch’s review published on Letterboxd:
When I was a teenager I used to delight in playing my LPs backwards and listening out for all those Satanic messages. I bet that if you played Tenet backwards you’d hear the devil mutter something palindromic like “what the fuck the what”
Now I’m not one to say this film made no sense at all, in fact when the music shut up for long enough that I was able to hear what the characters were actually saying, well, there were literally words that I recognised and ones I even knew the meaning of, such as “tenet” for example, which usually means “a principle or belief”, but in the context of the film means ... well ... um ... but mostly it was not the words themselves but more the way they were being combined that made no sense at all ... for example, “inverse radiation” - I mean, what the hell is that? - is it like when the frozen meal heats up your microwave or something?
Look, I’ll be honest with you, I was not the smartest kid in my physics class, but my troubles with the film started long before all the scientific mumbo jumbo, in fact they started right at the very beginning of the film ... now, I’m going to pause right there because if there’s one thing I know about a palindromic structure, it’s that the end reflects the beginning, and so there I was at the start watching the conductor tap his baton, already feeling mighty pleased with myself knowing that I’d be hearing the symphony orchestra play out the end of the film, when (arguable-spoiler) the film didn’t end up there at all, and in my palindromic rulebook, that’s cheating.
Anyway, as I was starting to say, my troubles began at the very beginning, because right from the get-go I was struggling to understand why some people were trying to blow up an innocent looking opera house while some other people who looked exactly like the first lot of people were trying to stop them, but I told myself that it was okay, because it was still early days and it’s a well known pre-requisite of mindfuckery that you need to be confused, and so I told myself to calm down and just enjoy it because Mr Nolan was bound to come along shortly with some of his famous exposition, and sure enough, right on cue, up pops his stooge, Martin Donovan, like he’s still in a Hal Hartley movie, and he tries to explain something or other, in his adorable philosophy lecturer way, about this word tenet being good at opening doors, and I’m starting to think, well that’s clear as mud, but okay then, so is it like a mind-bending concept where once you penetrate its mysteries you can understand things like reverse chronology?, or is it maybe more like a magic password?, and I’m hoping the latter but fearing the former, and now I’m worrying that I might have already missed the vital bit of information, and so yet again I tell myself to settle down and be calm, and that what Mr Nolan is probably doing here is just placing us in the confused mind of John David Washington, and if he’s anything like his old man Denzel, well then he’s bound to lead us to a place of heroic enlightenment sooner rather than later, but it’s just about then that the last thread of any prospect of understanding goes and bungy jumps off the building because at that precise moment someone says to him “don’t try to understand it, feel it” and young Washington’s like, thank Christ for that, because I’m buggered if I could understand this crazy screenplay, and so he goes and spends the rest of the movie, blasting and bluffing his way with a loaded magazine full of wise-cracks, the bastard.
However, never fear because cometh the hour, cometh Sir Michael Caine to prop up a chair and tell it to us straight, but here he’s already way too way out of character playing a well suited cockney chap named Sir Michael and it just seems like too much of a stretch, and in any case if his role was to open a few of those Martin Donovan doors then these are trap doors because the next thing I know is we’ve dropped into a spy story involving the aristocracy, arms trading and art forgery, and those are only the things beginning with “ar”.
And yet despite all my evident confusion, I was still able to work out that these Tenet stakes were terribly high stakes, because you see it turns out that what we’re dealing with here is the end of all life that is, and has been, and possibly ever will be depending on your views about the Grandfather Paradox. Well, I don’t know about your lineage but the only paradox there was about my grandfather was how such a genuinely lovely man could also be a racist, but I digress, but then so does the film, you see, because despite this rather grim prospect of all life ending, it turns out that no, the really BIG problem is that Kat can’t leave her husband AND keep custody of her child, and rather than get a family lawyer who specialises in such things, she convinces young Denzel Jr to do a temporal pincer movement instead, and yes, while I concede this may have saved her the bother of a lengthy Court process, I’m still not entirely convinced it was worth all the trouble and expense.
So far, so head-scratchy then, but Tenet never lets up long enough for me to start rubbing my beard instead, which as all bearded men and ladies know is where most of the good reflective thinking is done these days, and the reason the film doesn’t pause long enough is because there’s a lot of freaky forwards and backwards running, fighting and driving to be done, oh ... and you should know that it’s double your action money, because the important thing with all this Tenet to-ing and fro-ing is that, while the first time round it’s exciting, the second time round it’s gniticxe.
Now you may have picked up from earlier on in this review that I wasn’t such a big fan of Tenet’s steroidal bass and electric blender score, but that would mainly be because of the catastrophic collapse of my inner ear chambers in what, with the benefit of hindsight, was an eerie foretelling of the (spoiler) film’s climax, or (inverse spoiler) film’s beginning, depending on your temporal orientation, but despite all the aural bleeding, I was genuinely quite taken by the section of the score that reminded me of the many hours I used to waste with an elastic band pulled tight next to my ear listening to it twang, only here I was impressed by how Ludwig Göransson, the film’s composer, was able to get his elastic band to twang so fast, and all I could think was that he must have had a really cool machine that goes twang, and that, dammit, I really wanted one, and so it was then that I realised that ten minutes had passed with all this rapido-twanging during which I might have missed the key bit of information that would have explained what had continued to helter skelter before my eyes, and it’s for this reason, and because of my very small brain, and because of my lack of a very large spreadsheet, that I gave up trying to make sense of anything and I just let the rest of the movie sail over my head like a catamaran.
Long story short: I’ve no idea whether I’m coming or going on this one.