Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” which I finally got to see last month via on-demand streaming after its somewhat tortured, mid-pandemic theatrical release, did not make a lot of “best of” lists at the end of last year. I’m only guessing here but that was possibly due to the fact that as a film it’s so narratively intricate as to inspire—or necessitate—the making of charts like this one that I came across on Reddit:
The film’s ostentatious complexity seems to confuse audiences, not just in their attempts to follow along with the plot as it unfolds on screen, but also in the mental framework through which they try to understand just what kind of movie “Tenet” is. Even people who enjoy purposefully obscure cinematic storytelling tend to believe that a movie that looks and feels like a blockbuster (which “Tenet” does and, with a reported production cost of US$200 million, does so in spades) should also work like a blockbuster. These film fans also tend to believe that a movie that works like an art film should look and feel like an art film too. Frustratingly for many, “Tenet” flouts both ideas: it’s a movie that looks and feels like a blockbuster and yet works like an art film.
The traditional guideposts of popcorn flicks are all there in “Tenet”: staggering action set pieces, espionage on a fantastical scale, copious amounts of gunplay and explosions, a villain hellbent on destroying the world, and a beautiful, vaguely dimensional femme fatale at the heart of it all. The movie’s obvious template is the James Bond series, though its execution is considerably more impressive than anything that franchise has turned out for decades.
What’s confounding though is that “Tenet” offers up these wares but perversely denies its audience the opportunity to grab hold of them. Its plot is not just structurally complex but the advancement of the narrative is also awash in vague, nearly incomprehensible exposition, delivered with Nolan’s characteristic disinterest in intelligible dialogue. Watching it—and listening to it—you get the feeling of a plot but it’s nearly impossible to grasp the details as they flit by at a torrential, garbled pace.
Confounding audiences with directorial conceits is nothing new, but the army of art house directors who specialize in this modality don’t make movies that look or feel like “Tenet” at all. A film by David Lynch, Claire Denis or Terence Malick will insist on a certain distance from conventional storytelling, but they almost invariably frame those choices in comfortably recognizable cinematic constraints: you know you’re watching an art film because of the moodiness of the milieu, the painterliness of the cinematography, the spareness of the script or the idiosyncrasies of the performance. In each of these aspects “Tenet” is as stylistically opinionated as any art house film, but it’s starker and higher pitched and volumetrically brighter and much more explosive. There’s more guns, car crashes and things that go ka-boom! Hollywood stuff, basically.
All of which is why I find “Tenet” so absolutely thrilling. Here is a film that’s playing on another level. It hijacks exorbitant financing from a major studio and deploys it in service of a true auteurist vision. And it’s willing to make a demand on its audience that virtually no other film even attempts. As Nolan has repeatedly done in his career, “Tenet” takes our well-worn familiarity with genre filmmaking and pulls it inside out, slashes it to pieces, and reassembles it into something new and unfamiliar, and then asks us to enjoy it for its sheer sensation. Why settle for watching yet another hyperbolic spy actioner (I’m a huge fan of hyperbolic spy actioners, by the way) when you can use the genre to launch yourself into an experience of a kind you’ve never seen before?
“Experience” is the key term there—not “watch.” In a now famous (or infamous) line from the script, one of Nolan’s characters implores the film’s protagonist (archly unnamed and referred to only as “The protagonist”): “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” That specific feeling you should be feeling is the thrill of disorientation, the upending of your assumptions. This is the most expensive art film ever made.
I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t explain everything that happens in “Tenet,” and having seen it twice now I’m not even convinced that a hundred percent of its plot withstands close scrutiny. But that hardly seems to matter. Watching “Tenet,” what I appreciate is the extremely gifted moviemaking, the incredibly charming performances, the sublimely pristine cinematography, and the deftness with which Nolan has assembled them all into an intricate composition. It feels very close to the inexplicable logic of the best modern art; imagine a Bond film reconstituted as a Robert Rauschenberg canvas and you start to get some idea of what Nolan is trying to do here. And like Rauschenberg’s famous combine paintings, “Tenet” seems, so far anyway, endlessly viewable. The more you look at it, the more you see, though you may never understand everything.
Here’s the full list of twenty-two movies that I watched in January.
“Another Round” (2020) ★★★ A compelling performance by Mads Mikkelson elevates a fairly dopey premise that feels less and less convincing the more you think about it.
“Next Gen” (2018) ★★ I had low expectations for this Netflix back catalog kids film—and its story is forgettable—but the CG animation shows some real care and thought.
“The Cameraman” (1928) ★★★★ Unceasing physical comedy inventiveness from Buster Keaton, undergirded by deft pathos.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in 2020, 2019, in 2018, in 2017, and in 2016. Finally, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on letterboxd.com—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.