The director's newest film is a psychological ride through what cinema can do. If only it made any sense.
When writer-director Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) hit theatres, a cultural explosion followed. Everyone and their mother were talking about the intricacies of the film’s plot, wherein a man who’s expertly trained in the art of entering the subconscious via dreams has a final chance at redemption by means of organizing a mission whose intensity has never been attempted before. It has it all – amazing performances by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Elliot Page, and a surprisingly vulnerable Cillian Murphy, an espionage plot akin to those in the Bond franchise, a filmic world that simultaneously overwhelms and guides the audience and production value that translates the complicated plot into beautiful visuals.
Ten years later, Nolan has released Tenet. On paper, this film seems to follow the nearly perfect formula presented by Inception — great cast, gripping plot, massive and mind-bending world-building, and a budget hardly ever granted to original screenplays. In my opinion, Tenet does hit many of these marks. Specifically, the fantastic performances of Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and, of course, the mighty John David Washington, who seamlessly provided the cornerstone of the film in his portrayal of The Protagonist, stand out with brilliant chemistry between the trio. But, the film is far from perfect — it suffers from a propensity of informational overload and, in a completely shocking twist, a heavy-handed masculine touch that creates a reductive viewing experience from a female perspective.
remember — there are spoilers below!
If my coming summary of the plot seems butchered to you, that tells you more about the film than this review ever could. I've seen the film twice and it’s the very best I can do. The Protagonist (Washington), an ex-military agent who, within the first fifteen minutes of the film, kills himself with a cyanide pill. But, wait! It turns out that the pill was a placebo, given to him with the intention of testing his willingness to die for his cause. What is that cause, you might ask? For the bulk of the film, even he’s not completely sure.
The Protagonist is taken to a top-secret location where we are introduced to the film’s core – the discovery of objects that have been reversed in their momentum? Polarity? To be frank, I’m not sure. All you need to know is that these objects travel backward in time, people have harnessed this inversion to create machines to the past, and their existence is even more dangerous than a nuclear holocaust. Oh — and if you get shot by an inverted bullet, it’s a death sentence.
From this point in the film through the duration of the second act, we have a genuinely good action thriller with an unpredictably vulnerable core. The Protagonist is joined by mysterious agent Neil (Pattinson), and what unfolds is a tag-team dynamic that highlights the actors’ chemistry and potential. The duo attempt to get close to a Russian arms dealer named Andrei (Kenneth Branagh), who is suspected to be the source of inverted materials, and uses his wife, Kat (Debicki), as means to get closer to him.
Along the way, it is revealed that Kat herself is a victim of Andrei, and their marriage has become loveless and abusive — Andrei has blackmailed her into staying in the marriage and torments her by limiting her access to her son. Eventually, she helps The Protagonist gain an audience with the dealer, with the promise of his destruction of the blackmail held over her head (which, of course, he does not fulfill). The Protagonist and Neil manage to gather enough information to hijack the final piece of an inverted weapon so powerful it can wipe out all of humanity — it’s revealed that this has been The Protagonist’s cause this entire time, to prevent the completion of this weapon of mass destruction. He’s impressively successful in this venture, exhibited in a very fun car robbery wherein they collect The Algorithm, the final piece of this weapon, until, well, The Protagonist surrenders it for Kat’s life, which in turn almost ends the world.
This plot, when streamlined, makes enough sense for an enjoyable viewing experience. The catch is, Nolan’s extensive worldbuilding muddles the plot. Or — in other words — Nolan got a little too excited by his own sheer intelligence and detail and decided to overload the plot with unnecessary information to convey his vision. During my first watch, the film seemed to consist of different segments, typically broken up by character and location. At first, we’re following Washington in Ukraine, then, we’re watching Pattinson join him for a complex break-in, next we’re introduced to Debicki and the antagonist, etc. These chunks are objectively strong… just independently. Nolan’s over-complications make it so by the time you understand the previous section, you’re already halfway through the current one. Therefore, by the time you’ve reached the midpoint of the film, it feels as though you’re at least two important plot points behind. By the time you make it to the end, if you make it to the end, God forbid, unanswered questions have turned into gaping holes and all that’s left to do is give up, lean back, and drool over the cast.
Nolan uses his extensive world to create an allegory for the current global warming crisis, hyper-militancy, and the unchecked power of the world’s elite. While this is commendable, with a plot that’s already this dense, he can’t possibly appropriate the proper time to fully develop these threads. This creates nothing more than added confusion, specifically during the final act. We’re told that the world is going to end because of Andrei’s god complex, but also that it’s actually humans from the future trying to end the world via Andrei because our generation has ruined the rivers, or land, or just something of that nature. It’s a lot to handle.
Nolan’s tendency to get caught up in his own head is largely unsurprising, as it’s a trait we’ve
seen time and time before. Far more infuriating, he also has demonstrated a repeated inability to write female characters. As mentioned, Elizabeth Debicki plays Kat, a mother stuck in an abusive relationship who’s desperate to be with her son. She brings a raw strength to this role that isn’t undermined by anyone or anything, except for her character
The reason I’m exploring this in-depth is that it’s indicative of a recurring and toxic trope in film: female characters can only exhibit strength if they’ve endured an absurd amount of trauma to justify it.
Her character’s identity and purpose throughout the entire film is as a mother first and victim second. It’s as if Nolan can only perceive females in their docile social roles in a masculine society. Kat has value because she has a son — but, if that son wasn’t there, we’d have a far weaker character as the only facets of her personality we see interwoven with the blackmailing plot. Not only is she reduced to her motherhood, but also serves as the stereotypical damsel-in-distress, albeit a particularly badass one. She goes from the victim of marital abuse to a physical victim of the growing battle between The Protagonist/Neil and Andrei, as she is shot point-blank in the stomach by an inverted bullet (remember, very bad) when The Protagonist refuses to give up information. She promptly spends the next hour-or-so on a gurney being taken care of by The Protagonist and Neil. If that wasn’t enough, she is then tasked with facing her abuser once more assuming the role of devoted penitent wife.
The reason I’m exploring this in-depth is that it’s indicative of a recurring and toxic trope in film: female characters can only exhibit strength if they’ve endured an absurd amount of trauma to justify it. This trope operates from the perspective that women’s character is inherently submissive, incapable of possessing “masculine” traits, such as strength or bravery, without an abnormally distressing cause. Characters such as Debicki’s cannot be introduced as badasses, because strong females are just outliers, right? As a female audience member, I grew exhausted very quickly at this repetitive abuse — it made me feel ostracized from Tenet as I was watching it.
I could write another paper about Priya, played by Dimple Kapadia, who is a Mumbai-based arms dealer using her husband as a front to run her empire. You’re probably thinking, “Doesn’t that contradict what you just said about Kat?” Yes and no. To keep it short, for the bulk of the film Priya is a badass boss who provides The Protagonist with important information for his mission. I can’t emphasize how cool this woman is. But, wouldn’t you know it, instead of letting us have this powerful woman of color, Nolan turns her character into an antagonist who inevitably is killed by none other than The Protagonist. And why does he kill her? Because she was going to kill Kat. The demonization of a woman of color and pitting women against each other… very cool, Nolan.
From the bulk of this article’s content, it seems as though I despise Tenet. But, if I’m being honest, watching this film was exhilarating in a way that only Nolan films can be. The cinematography of this film was entrancing, and the visualization of the inverted world was consistently awesome (and mildly hilarious - watching characters run inverted made me giggle without fail). The beating heart of this film is John David Washington. I firmly believe that no other actor could carry this film the way he did and that no other actor could navigate a world as tricky as Nolan’s and make it seem so easy. All of that being said, no amount of chemistry or special effects can edit this script into a cohesive narrative, and no amount of sentimental motherhood or female antagonists can cover up Nolan’s inability to portray realistic women. ✴
All photos from Tenetstellar.
Sofia Voss is a twenty-year-old filmmaker and writer pursuing a double major in Film Production and Art History at the University of Missouri. Her specialization is LGBTQIA+ representation in long-form media. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @sofiapvoss.