Jo Brennan’s review published on Letterboxd:
The following review features not only spoilers of Tenet, but also Southland Tales by Richard Kelly and Déjà vu by Tony Scott. Two excellent, undervalued works that you should be seeing instead of this giant piece of shit that can put you in actual danger due to its release in the midst of a pandemic. I fortunately live in a country with little covid risk. But if you don’t have the same luck, please don’t risk your safety and that of others.
Still can't believe that this pseudo-thinkpiece on free will, that questions how much agency we can really have in a post-cold war world filled with surveillance, intricately connected hierarchies and work we have to do without information on why. A film that was discussing the multiple ways in which the individual is turned into a gear of the grander machine, ends explaining with detail how actually The Protagonist (ugh) isn't an agent in lack of control, subordinated to the forces beyond him to act for their will. But the one responsible for all the occurrences.
You could say that his level of agency is still questionable because his acting is still connected to the reaction that has been predetermined. That he still has to exercise the steps of the plan in a specific order because of the power of the universe. However, that would be ignoring the mere fact that the movie is ending with giving him the complete responsibility of the actions and events we saw unfold through the story. This movie was showing promising signs on how The Protagonist isn’t the center of the world. That there are people above him making him do as they wish, and other agents working in parallel to accomplish this same targets. Someone outright tells him so when he appears full of himself. But what does any of that matter if The Protagonist’s choices are still the ones that matter for this story to happen the way it does?
Everyone else turns out to be a part of his machine, and The Protagonist takes all the credit. After all, he is the person behind the Tenet organization that put everything on its place for the Salvation of the World. If you want to make a story about how insignificant we are at the face of the universe’s mechanisms, you don’t end it giving the most agency to the protagonist. And is not that you can’t end a story like this with empowerment, but you have to make clear that the character is fighting back against his lack of agency rather than implying that he was a sort of Chosen One if your wish is to make a story with dramatic sense.
For an example, I can think of Southland Tales. A movie oddly similar to Tenet in many of its aesthetic and political concerns. You could say that in the 2006 film, Ronald is also a predetermined special by the universe. However, there is still something that is emphasized in its third act: and is that he is using his will to go directly against that of those who were politically dominating him, be that the government with its electoral parties or corporations (the same people worked for both, regardless). Entities that were controlling him through entangled complots and meaningless sided fights that essentially supported the same system. It is an act of reclamation of agency after struggling with doing things because he didn’t have any other option. Because it was a matter of participating or dying.
You can even look at Tony Scott’s Déjà vu for another case of empowerment. In that movie, we have a similar case of characters being trapped by reaction and not being able to have control, but now due to physics. But then the movie takes the bold path of having its character break against the logistics that were established. Because his passion for the woman he was pursuing to save was bigger than anything logical. The movie goes against its own logic and by that creates a humanist statement that might seem corny for some, but that makes sense in dramatic terms. Here it is again, a lack of power followed by an act of empowerment. The characters being told that he can’t do something because of what is beyond him and then doing it regardless. Because sentimentality matters more than scientific rationality on the world that Scott constructs.
Now let us go back to Tenet; is the final revelation at all an act of empowerment? It is, essentially, the movie giving him complete responsibility for story. He is not learning anything about his self, he is not experiencing personal catharsis, and it doesn’t go against what he believed, even. In spite of his initial lack of control, he gained confidence in his importance as the movie went on. The only thing that the movie is doing is a power fantasy translated to the literal. Not for the purpose of reclaiming identities and fighting back against organizations because he is, after all, the one in power of the organization. It is the movie promising a liberal sense of importance and then giving it without any narrative play.
However, a specific angle adds to the destruction of this film’s thematics, and is that of information. Up until that point, the movie was playing with the concept of the knowledge that we didn’t have about the events, in other to reflect the lack of power that The Protagonist had over what happened to him. People beyond him were deciding meticulously the things he was doing, and because of that, they were keeping information from him so he can still act in that way. It is something that the character gets to suffer from at some point, since the paranoia seems to eat his head and from how little he knows about the plot, he does not know in who to trust. It is what happens before the character gets to go in reverse to continue his action (although beyond this, the doubt is not taken further from this).
This was working, because since knowledge about our situation gives us power to act over it, the lack of such reflected the little power he had. A movie conscious about its theme, would of have run home with this, ending by keeping the questions. But Nolan gives up. He explains the reasons why all of it happened. Giving us enough information to comprehend the happenings, and taking away any significance that could there be. We were promised answers at the end and then they were given. So what is the point of the experience?
And this is not taking into consideration how fucking arbitrary the actual reveal is. For all its significance, it is something said by Neil (Robert Pattinson) in a moment before going away. Almost like a clarification that he could have perfectly forgotten about. All of the events happen, and the movie suddenly and without any build up decides to give out its most important piece in the same way he could have said “remember to call me later”, or something.
It almost feels like the movie could have ended a few minutes earlier before that revelation and, dramatically, nothing would have been lost. If anything, the movie would have gained power. After his involvement, The Protagonist still lacks the awareness of what all of that was for, beyond a vague and childish “saving of the world”. But since Nolan can’t risk to do anything interest, he has to do what is predictable. His movie can’t afford to do the unpredictable and do what only it could have done; it has to end up being a typical blockbuster with a banal façade of elitist intelligence.
Nevertheless, there is no intelligence to be found here. The contradiction that the movie lives in is incredibly strange, because at the same time it is incomprehensible and overly explained. Overly explained, because all of the reasons for the logistics and the events of the film are there, not leaving anything to the imagination. Yet, at the same time, it is incomprehensible because all of these explanations are delivered quickly with no sense of patience for the audience to process them. It is trying to make obtuse something that is perfectly understandable by presenting it as if it were more complex than it was.
This movie is the filmic equivalent of Ben Shapiro. A movie that thinks of itself as smart because of its arrogance in tone. Speaking loudly so the entire room sees he is speaking, but quickly so they don’t have the time to process the stupidity of his saying, all the while it makes jokes about how complex it is. Like when Neil ask The Protagonist if his head hurt after delivering two lines of dialogue with Big Words attached to his talking, or when Kat –played by Elizabeth Debicki- stating that she isn’t understanding shit.
This isn’t a complex movie; it is just a condescending and capricious one. It doesn’t have respect for the audience, because it can’t let a second of it pass without the soundscape overwhelming your senses for no other reason than to have you still awaken. It is loud to the point of deafening, just to highlight its luxuries and the expense of them. Pure yelling that leaves you nowhere.
And not only does it have no respect for the people watching it, being loud and fast to leave an impression of intelligence without bothering to make its audience follow along. It also doesn’t have respect for time. For a filmmaker so obsessed with it, he doesn’t seem to have the patience to leave the camera rolling on a shot for more than five seconds. Everything has to be elliptical; the sequences always start halfway through, without the time to emphasize an action. The montage gets to a point of absurdity when shots of characters just sitting can’t even let the character perform the entire action without cutting.
It is always throwing you things at the face without a quiet moment so the audience can have a rest. I wasn’t even an hour and a half into it and I was already wishing for it to end, so I could take a second to breathe and clear my thoughts. The absence of calm moments does nothing but weaken the spectacle since it all looks alike. If the scene isn’t about two people giving up lots of information, it is an action film just like the one before it, and it makes what should be impressive just monotone.
And that’s why the ellipsis doesn’t work. For the sake of other comparison, if ellipses functions in something like the works of Claire Denis, is because those omissions are used to reveal. Reveal about the characters, or reveal about a situation presented. For example, when in Beau Travail we see a death body on the coast of a beach. We are given a part of information of the entirety of the event (a plane crashed, one person being rescued but another one not). However, what’s left out here serves to give an importance to the weight of the corpse, and the life attached to such body that has been lost. We spend less time on the superficial of what happened to linger on its emotional resonance. However, in Tenet those ellipses are only there to absurdly compress the story and cut out both the sentiments and the events of the story. The result shows Nolan seemingly having forgotten about cinematic rhythms and cinematic structure.
Speaking of monotony and lack of sentimentality, what’s up with Nolan’s recent tendency of completely ditching the human elements of his stories? Between this and Dunkirk, he seems no longer interested in people beyond their capacities and the purpose they can have in an overarching story. There is never a moment of introspection allowed. An argument could be made about that decision being an aware one, since the espionage world is established as one in which nobody needs to know “unnecessary details” about the other, so everyone is hiding something. This works for the character of Neil – except when the movie tries to sell a friendship with The Protagonist that is not there -, who is defined by what he doesn’t tell but shows to know.
However, the movie is supposed to be centered on the limited perspective of, well, The Protagonist. Why not allow him a moment with himself and his thoughts. Why not show his uncertainties, aspirations, desires, and frustrations and so on? If the point is to make a J.P. Melville-like character, someone that only finds meaning in his profession but is unable to develop his human characteristics due to the alienation of labor, why not expose that? Why not dedicate images to express this destruction of personal identity due to industrialization of the self and the subjugation to unspecific entities?
And whenever the film wants to explore any interiority, we get Kat’s character. Does Nolan still live in the 1950s to write characters like this? When exploring her, he seems unable completely to come up with anything that doesn’t relate to her relation with patriarchal roles of what a woman has to be. In more simple terms, her character only consists of her talking about her son. Because, of course, the only thing that woman care about is their children. That’s the only emotion that a person of the opposite gender can have, that being attachment to that whom they gave birth. And when she’s not talking about her son, she’s being treated to horrible abuse from her husband.
The treatment of such delicate subject is nothing short of distasteful to an embarrassing extent. Treating it like a matter of black and white in which a man defined by his maleficence physically and psychologically abuses the poor woman. There is not an interest present in showing the social effects of abuse, how this characters carries with it beyond her interactions with the abuser, how the patriarchy validates the attitudes of the man and disbeliefs of the woman, treating her issue as non-important. There is not even an interest in showing the dynamics of an abusive relationship. Or anything in more subtle terms that might also constitute as abuse. It is only featured for the sake of the shock of seeing a woman be brutalized on screen and feel empathy to her through pity rather than understanding.
The most I can give the movie is that at least this arc ends with her being empowered by directly cutting out the relationship and presenting such act with righteousness, rather than have a man solve her issue. But even with that, the character is still left defined only by the abuse she suffers, not having a life beyond that and her son. Something that Nolan makes her repeat in other to disguise the fact that he didn’t write a character, but a tool.
Repetition and abundance being what betrayals Nolan’s attempts here. We are so over-exposed to the machinations of reversed time that they are revealed to not be mechanics, but tricks. Tricks in the pursuit to impress that are rendered meaningless. Christopher Nolan has always been an effectist filmmaker. But here he exceeds his few tricks and exploits them so much that, before you even enter the section of the story that takes place backwards, you no longer care about what you see. It is a magician using the same tactic to make himself seem like a genius, but his tricks are no longer new nor interesting, and the only thing they reveal is how little Nolan has genuinely on his head.
Quoting works, phrases, statements and minds of what he thinks are cultured things, going by the illusion that through the mere act of reminiscence, he will acquire the same importance they hold. However, if you don’t understand what you’re quoting, if you just spite quotes like “We live in a twilight world” every five seconds and name drop people like Walt Whitman, without an interest in exploring them through your dramaturgy, you’re showing yourself to only be appearing smart rather than just being. Thinking you’re smart just because you can mention from memory such things.
And that’s what, for me, defines the movie the best. A movie about posing without demonstrating. A two and a half hours jerkoff to his appeared talents that is so concerned with showing itself as sophisticated and smart, that it forgets to accomplish anything that makes a movie good. Or interesting to reflect on. Some have said that he was destined to make this. And I agree. But do so with a different intention.
It was what his career was building up to: A self-masturbatory disaster that intensifies all of his terrible tendencies for a delusional project born out of ego, which exists only because nobody has put his feet on the ground due to the icon culture has built him to be. Icon that he believes to be and has to reassure he is.
The little appreciation that I gained for Nolan after revisiting Inception has been lost.