Directed by:  Christopher Nolan

OK, so we’re back in socially distanced, mask-wearing theaters! The first movie I want to review I went to see twice, partially because of the lack of any other interesting films, but at least partially because it begged for multiple viewings. I would suggest you do the same; doing so certainly rewarded me. Christopher Nolan‘s much anticipated TENET is a non-stop, action thriller with a dash of abstract philosophy made actual in the physical world. Some have written that the film has no heart, but I don’t think that’s true. More about that later.

The movie builds around a single character, known only as “The Protagonist“, played by David John Washington. Washington is very much up to the task, and, while one character says to TP at one point, “You’re in way over your head“, the actor himself is not at all. He plays the love scenes, the cerebral-agent-thinking-it-out scenes, and the action scenes, all with exceptional skill. TP is a hero in the vein of James Bond, a slashing, dashing man-about-town who is also able to beat up a whole pack of Russian thugs, come back from the dead twice in one movie, drive a cigarette speedboat like he’s been doing it all his life, and 1000 other debonair, perfect things that make him absolutely impossible to believe.

But believing is not the point of this movie, which takes the phrase “suspension of disbelief“ to new limits. The point is to sit back and enjoy the ride, trying to follow Christopher Nolan‘s amazing plot as it twists and turns in and out of the past and the future while remaining in the present. There are a couple of wonderful dialogue pieces between Robert Pattinson, who plays Neil, a British agent, and Washington, which seem like expositions at first, but really end up only being clues to Neil‘s actual place in the plot. Nevertheless, the discussions of time are philosophy, advanced physics, and theology all mixed into one, and they are mind-bending to say the least. Add in the comments made by Anton Sator, the Russian arms dealer bad guy played by Kenneth Branagh, and the fact that the entire film is related to a medieval puzzle called the SATOR Square, and one has a lot to think about in a very short period of time.

Action sequences fill the movie, as they regularly do in Christopher Nolan‘s other films (Interstellar, Inception, Memento, Dunkirk, and the Batman trilogy). This movie of course has a twist in that some of the time the action is in the present and some of the time the action is in the past, where reversed-film technique makes the fighters battle in reverse. One stunning car chase involves cars that have come into the past from the future, and trying to follow what is happening with cars flipping over backwards and forwards, etc. is mind-boggling.

I particularly found it interesting that the acting was as good as it was in what is essentially an action film. As I’ve mentioned, Washington is superb in the lead, Pattinson, Branagh, and Elizabeth Debicki, the love interest in the movie, are all superb and lose themselves and their star power completely in their characters. Debicki particularly excels, as she has to play the elegant art surveyor, loving mother, the alluring love interest, and the despairing, vengeful wife, moving between these roles effortlessly throughout the film. So often actresses with remarkable, runway-model good looks lack the ability to make you care for the characters they portray, but this is far from the case with Debicki. When she is with her son, the viewer buys her love for him and her protective nature. When she is with Washington, the strange dance of growing attraction, which clearly is part of the arc of both characters, is subtly spun out. When she has scenes with Branagh, her evil, violent husband, both the weakness of fear and the strength of hatred are apparent; Debicki handles this tension particularly well.

Another important factor in the acting is the friendship that develops between Neil and the TP. Both agents, but from different agencies, they work together, trying to iron out differences in approach to solving whatever problem they have at the moment, and their respect for each other grows nicely during the film until their friendship is solidly in place by its end. Plot developments at the end of TENET reveal even more why they get along so well, but that does not detract from the way Nolan has built their relationship for the viewer over the viewer’s two hours of experience.

TENET is not just a cerebral puzzle, an action movie, or a set piece for acting. It’s also fun. In the end (spoiler alert!) the good guys win out, the bad guys are foiled, the world is saved, and the mother gets to be with her little boy. How could one say a film like this has no heart?

Drew Trotter

September 23, 2020

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