Tenet

Tenet

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Technology promises the impossible, but the future is still fundamentally unknowable.

My sense is that what bothers many about Nolan-speak is its tendency to render the complex, even the sublime, in the most clinical way possible. The ending of Inception dangles a tantalizing question, but in so thoroughly defining the rules of the dreamworld and the dream/consciousness binary, Nolan crowds out any space for real mystery. Interstellar was a step in the right direction, but even as Nolan gestures toward the intervention of a greater consciousness, he can't help but indulge the kind of narrative symmetry (in that case, McConaughey discovering that he was the ghost haunting Murph's room all along) that lends his movies to description by adjectives like "neat," "pat," or even "cold."

Tenet is a breakthrough. Here is a film in which discussions about the nature of time and consciousness are allowed to proceed to a logical endpoint rather than one reverse engineered to provide an answer that will clarify a plot development—it's perhaps Nolan's first inductive film. The old model sought to bend philosophy to the needs of narrative and ultimately catharsis, which, as Neal Bahadur's pointed out, is largely absent in any traditional form here. But it goes beyond simply withholding what we’ve come to expect from a Nolan movie—in Tenet Nolan seems intent on frustrating the audience; you see this in dialogue scenes in which Neil answers every one of the Protagonist's questions with another paradox, but more important, you see it in the action. By inverting cause/effect, Nolan withholds the easier pleasures that have typically come with his cascading parallel action: a van tumbles off the side of the road in Inception, and you delight in watching that centrifugal force reverberate down the dream levels; here Nolan doesn't provide the key to comprehending the final battle until its entire 20 minutes have concluded. But that key poses still further questions, questions which are unanswerable not by way of manipulation, but because of informational overload: Inception’s abrupt cut to black withholds the key to that film’s puzzle; in Tenet, Nolan provides everything that can possibly be known within the time these characters occupy, opening up manifold possibilities—a significantly more disorienting experience. 

I'm still puzzling over how (or if) the coda fits into Nolan's larger design. But even if those final five minutes don't square with everything that came before, there's something beautiful about gambling the future for the sake of a mother's love for her child in the present. It’s as hopeful a gesture as anything he's done, and it moved me to tears.

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