This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
iksvecjart’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I'm kind of rambling here so forgive me if I don't make any sense
At this point, my take on this movie can be summarised by the moment in the climactic sequence where a building blows up, is rebuilt, before exploding again in real-time - I've had to shape and reshape my opinion based on new details I keep finding with every successive viewing.
What we have here is a film that is clearly, aggressively Nolan, the kind of auteurist passion project so ridiculously ambitious and hubristic that I can only sit back in deep admiration. Even its smaller details are just so *him* - the narrative structure for example, like the title, is palindromic, as it is based around its six main set pieces, which can roughly be written out as 1. Intro/Explosion, 2. Freeport, 3. Highway, 4. Highway Pt. 2, 5. Freeport Pt. 2, 6. Outro/Explosion (...is this math cinema?). These kinds of dorkier easter eggs aren't unusual to his filmography; consider Inception for example, where the characters' initials playfully spell out "dreams".
Like Inception, many have pointed out the relative incomprehensibility of the plotting, though I do find this aspect has been somewhat overstated. In the former film, Nolan held the viewers' hand by repeatedly laying out the rules of the dream worlds' mechanics; Tenet is mostly confusing on first viewing due to its barrage of exposition and rapid exploration of challenging concepts. Further, it does not go for easy sentimental points like his other films, instead hiding its emotional POV in plain sight, among layers of sci-fi and spy-related red herrings. On top of that, each scene is brimming with new ideas, to the point where it can be overwhelming to take in at once. What this means is that this is Nolan's densest, the one film of his (if you had to pick just one) that truly does reward multiple viewings.
"I've always had instincts about the future..."
It's dead obvious at this point that Nolan is obsessed with time and how it can be manipulated. In recent works, he has opted to expand and shrink time (see: Inception, Interstellar, Dunkirk), while here he decides to change its direction of flow entirely (while, in his most logistically sophisticated action scene yet, also cutting back and forth between sequences going forwards and backwards in time). The moment when The Protagonist fights an inverted version of himself in the freeport is microcosmic of Tenet's battle between time running up and downstream. And what of technology's role in manipulating time and what of its connection with the future? Ignoring cinema's role in doing exactly this for a second (sculpting in time, etc, etc), there's a quote here by Priya which I love, where she posits that our current use of technology (emails, texts, credit cards, as she cites, but also by extension the act of releasing a film) is already a means of sending messages into the future - the question then becomes, can technology let the future speak back? And if it can, if humanity can make this possible, then how do we make sense of it all; how would the world we perceive change?
After my first viewing, I was puzzled by what I (and many others it seems) thought was the film's stubborn emotionlessness. I chalked that down to how conceptualised to the extreme the characters were, to almost self-parodic levels. To an extent, that's true, with the central characters roughly fitting Bond movie archetypes, particularly with Debicki as the Bond girl and Branagh as the exaggerated and absurdly intense villain, seemingly going toe to toe with Ludwig Göransson's nearly non-stop loud and pulsating score. But the character work is still interesting here. Take the female characters for instance: Priya is introduced as merely the wife of Mumbai's main arms dealer, and even the quick-thinking Protagonist is misled by his dominant male-centric POV; none of us (including the camera which intently focuses on Sanjay instead) realise how crucial she would be to the narrative until she tells us herself.
And then take Kat; whereas one might assume based off past experience in mainstream American cinema that a Bond girl type would be merely a romantic interest, there are no traditionally romantic scenes here except for maybe those between her and Sator late on, which are complicated by several layers of deception anyway. And though she's an outsider to much of the story's intricate genre play for most of the movie, it's clear how intelligent/observant she is (for instance, she immediately realises The Protagonist is out of his depth in their restaurant meeting, seeing past the facade of expensive clothing straight away). And when she finally does get involved, she is afforded agency we don't always see with her type of character. Along with Neil, she is the only one who does not strictly follow the operation's "rules" in the final action sequence (he inverts himself halfway through the mission without orders; she prematurely kills off Sator). On the surface, one could see this as her giving into her emotions and potentially jeopardising the mission, but the shot of the other Kat returning with her son complicates this - what could have been a subtly misogynistic moment is transformed into one of an independent thinker taking initiative with the only available option at the right time. And even if it was an emotionally charged decision, can you honestly really blame her?
"He took Max ashore. He called us, contrite. And when we got back I glimpsed another woman diving off the boat and he vanished. I never felt such envy."
"You don't seem the jealous type."
"Of her freedom."
The Kat/Sator relationship, particularly within this scene in Vietnam is complex in ways that I haven't seen in a Nolan film before. Obviously it's a marriage defined by DV and Sator taking advantage over her one true error in observation by imposing dictatorial control, but it's complicated because you get the sense that he does hold remorse for his ultimatum ("it was a stupid joke", he explains, before saying "we both know my opinion of you is higher than yours of me"). In the original "reality", this apology (genuine or not) couldn't have happened, but perhaps with this second reality, this second chance, their relationship might have been less caustic? The Protagonist late on asks, "Can we change things if we do it differently?", to which Neil responds, "What's happened, happened" - this idea is most clearly illustrated through the narrative here. The damage has been done of course, there's no way that Kat is going to love him from here. This character play is layered under much deception given that (a) Sator's death is near anyway, so he could have been looking for a peaceful ending and the feeling of victory, (b) he knew he had the upper hand, and could thus afford to be nice to her, and (c) he didn't know this was a second version of Kat - so how much of this affection was genuine? And then moving beyond this, what about the original Kat and her son? How will they react in the absence of their tormentor - and if Max has a healthy relationship with his father (we're never quite sure), then how would he be processing his feelings? In short, how has their world changed? And more broadly, was their reality truly fixed and unchangeable in the way they once thought?
The ending made me tear up this time, there's something just so beautiful about it. The twist here is that The Protagonist was in charge the whole time; already this is interesting as we don't often see a spy movie with our hero having agency to this extent (even if he doesn't realise it for most of the runtime). But the implicit message of this twist is: your past self has already helped you even without your knowledge; have faith that your future self will too. And what about the moment when Neil notes that it's the "end of a beautiful friendship" for him, but still the beginning for The Protagonist, a riff on Casablanca's famous final line. Sure, their objective timelines don't quite add up, but maybe it doesn't matter so much anymore when the two of them can achieve their purpose down their own paths? When The Protagonist accuses Sator of only believing in his own experience, could he have unlocked a new way of understanding the world that his life of espionage until then restricted? What's happened, happened: whether you call it fate or reality, it's the present moment and how we perceive it that really counts. Coded within the language of genre and buried under thrilling narrative convolution, these relatively simple platitudes/ideas turn into something profound because the audience has to work a bit harder to reach them.
This then takes me to the final sequence, maybe my favourite application of the Nolan ending template (voice-over/music/last-minute tying of narrative threads/some abstract imagery here and there). The key is the narration, played over Kat nearing the school in a shot identical to her introduction to the movie; the idea that even the most subtle of actions we take that are hidden to everyone else can make such an impact is really beautiful to me. We see Kat walk her son home for the first time and it's as if the whole world has permanently shifted for the better.
A couple of random scattered thoughts just to finish this off:
- All of Nolan's best action sequences are here.
- I only just noticed Travis Scott's voice in the middle of the highway sequence just as The Protagonist is about to grab the artifact in the truck lol
- The plot kinda reminded me of Infinity War ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
- The gold bars being thrown off the plane onto the ground reminded me of the money getting released at the end of The Killing, which for me has always been the only movie where I thought the Kubrick/Nolan comparison made any sense at all.
- Nolan setting up twists/reveals with seemingly random imagery is basically the only thing he does now, but the complexity of the concepts surrounding said images make the pay-offs feel even more impressive this time.
- The moment we realise we're seeing three versions of The Protagonist on screen at once in the Freeport is quite the juicy mindfuck
- Kenneth Branagh's balls monologue is some real fucked up shit, wtf Nolan lmaooo
- The inverted ship Washington/Pattinson/Debicki travel in looks like it's going back and forth judging from the poles in the background? I don't know what it was exactly, but I was amused
- The opening scene is actually a metaphor for everyone sleepin while Nolan sets off his masterpiece
TL;DR: Nolan's best. "It's very fire", as they say