"Tenet" is Christopher Nolan's most challenging film — and also his most satisfying
Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Opens Aug. 26 at theatres everywhere. 151 minutes. PG
The spinning top of "Inception" and the endless void of "Interstellar" have nothing on the grand intrigue that is "Tenet,"a brainy spy thriller that is Christopher Nolan's most challenging film — and also his most satisfying.
There's nothing wrong with complicated or even obtuse plots, as long as the filmmaker makes us feel invested enough to want to figure them out.
"Tenet," titled for a code word given to John David Washington's world-saving lead character, certainly succeeds on that score. I wanted to watch it again as soon as it faded to black, to better understand what I'd just seen.
The film distorts time and space in ways reminiscent of Nolan’s earlier mind-benders “Inception,” “Interstellar” and “Memento.” But the byzantine plots of those films seem like dress rehearsals for this one.
Washington's unnamed hero identifies himself as "The Protagonist." He shares the screen with equally furtive figures played by Kenneth Branagh, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
They're all working angles regarding a device invented by people in the future, who somehow have made contact with people in these times. The device allows its user to shift time by a process called "inversion," which in the wrong hands could cause a global catastrophe that is described as "something worse" than nuclear holocaust.
Branagh's character, a brutal Russian billionaire named Andrei Sator, has the upper hand: he's already using the device. Washington's Protagonist and his genial sidekick Neil (Pattinson) are playing catch-up, trying to stop Sator from starting World War III.
The film has a few rough edges. Nolan delights in adding layer upon layer of complications and muddying the sound so that viewers have to literally lean forward to catch exposition on the fly.
It can get wearisome, but more often it's a pleasure to follow Nolan's breadcrumb trail of half-truths and red herrings. Frequent action scenes help maintain momentum as pieces of the puzzle fall into jagged place — or not.
The film has an ice-cold sheen to it, appropriate to its Cold War theme and Eastern European and Scandinavian settings, courtesy of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who previously lensed "Interstellar" and "Dunkirk" for Nolan.
Composer Ludwig Göransson, replacing Nolan's regular collaborator Hans Zimmer (who was off doing "Dune" with Denis Villeneuve), delivers a score that rumbles and roars with menace and mystery.
All of the characters are great, but Washington really finds the humour and humanity in a role that could easily have submerged any actor caught in Nolan's expositional quicksand.
Washington's Protagonist offers on-screen advice to another character that we should all heed: "Try to keep up," he says with a mischievous smile.