The 400-Word Review: Tenet

By Sean Collier

September 4, 2020


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Complicated and clever are not synonyms.

In “Tenet,” Christopher Nolan has crafted another detailed, circuitous narrative. It is imaginative and intricate. It would not, however, have been impossible for him to make his narrative clear to the audience.

At this point in his career, he seems disinterested in ensuring the audience is following along.

“Tenet,” the long-delayed thriller meant to lure audiences back to theaters (the outdoor kind, hopefully), concerns a young, unnamed recruit (John David Washington) to a shadowy peacekeeping force. It’s called Tenet — or maybe that’s just a code word — and it fights against an apocalyptic threat from the future.

As an officious trainer (Clémence Poésy) vaguely describes, pieces of weaponry have been found that have the ability to move backwards in time; bullets fly back into guns, bombs reassemble buildings. Our shadow organization seems to have discovered relics from a war yet to occur.

“Don’t try to understand it,” she cautions our hero. This should also be taken as an instruction to the audience.


The protagonist, with the help of an associate (Robert Pattinson), will trace the source of the time-defiant weapons back to a Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh) and work with his estranged wife (Elizabeth Debicki) to try to stop him, eventually working his way backwards through the movie to get it done.

I think, if you had a large enough dry-erase board, you could develop a looping timeline that could eventually make sense of this story. If you’re actually hoping to enjoy the film, though, I wouldn’t bother; following the constant maze of explanation, exposition and excuse will only cause an unpleasant headache.

Since that renders half of “Tenet” superfluous to your experience, what’s left is an above-average action movie. Washington and Pattinson are good; Debicki, as always, is excellent. Tonally, “Tenet” is a bit somber — this is supposed to be fun, right? — but the impressive visuals do go a long way, even if they can’t match the appeal of “Inception” or the grander moments of Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

They do not, however, make up for the folly of this project. Nolan has created a story so obtuse that the viewer cannot hope to grasp it — while simultaneously demanding reverence and mid-pandemic attendance. He’s shoving the audience aside with one arm and drawing them in with the other.

If that’s how we’re going to save movie theaters, we’re in trouble.

My Rating: 6/10

“Tenet” is now playing in indoor and outdoor theaters.



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