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Future to the Back

Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Brothers Pictures

Tenet (2020)

“Tenet” might not be the safest movie to release during such perilous times. For this is a film that demands repeat viewings – a dazzling puzzle box that you will need to see at least twice to comprehend, and even then there will still be gaps in your knowledge. Going once will simply not be enough as – virus be damned – you’ll feel compelled to go back for another look. Sure you could wait and stream “Tenet” at a later date, but this is a film that deserves the biggest of big screens. There will be online videos where the film will be salivated over and pulled apart like a hog roast, but relying on those is just cheating. Christopher Nolan spent years writing this thing so you owe it to him to do the detective work yourself. All you will need is a wipe-board, several different colored pens and a focus group of the world’s top physicists. Fear not reader, there will be no major spoilers in this review, for that would require me to know what the hell was going on in “Tenet” to start with.

The plot involves a C.I.A. agent played by the hugely charismatic John David Washington – formerly of “BlacKkKlansman,” “Ballers” and Denzel’s loins. First up, he’s at a siege in a Kiev concert hall – much like the real-life Nord-Ost siege of 2002 – where he’s involved in a rescue attempt that goes awry. It’s a thrilling opener which is merely an hors d’oeuvre for the viewer and a test for Mr. Washington’s spy who is later recruited for a much bigger mission – preventing the end of the world, no less. Well, you weren’t expecting “Tenet” to be about an attempt to save a local community theatre were you? The chief villain is a mega-wealthy Russian played by Kenneth Branagh in a repeat performance of his sneering baddie from “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” – a film cruelly overlooked for the Library of Congress National Film Registry. Mr. Branagh’s character is so nasty that he beats a man to death with a gold brick. Obvious symbolism aside, one imagines that this is something available through the dark web as an experience day for oligarchs.

Chief victim of the evil Russian’s cruelty is his wife – played by Elizabeth Debicki – who is pushed and pulled around, shot at and nearly beaten by her husband while always looking immaculate. This is an uncomfortably old-school role – from a less-enlightened alternate universe where Geena Davis has yet to say anything. As Mr. Washington’s spy investigates his new nemesis, he becomes closer to the wife, using her as a way to track his prey while trying very hard to avoid any emotional involvement. So far, so simple. But the bad guy has something big hidden away in a freeport that the C.I.A. man is tasked with getting his hands on, and it’s not his tax records.

One will say no more about the story. “Tenet” is an exciting, full-on, W.T.F.-is-happening assault on the senses from a director who enjoys messing with your head as well as conventional storylines. Time itself is twisted along with the plot; and the cerebral and visceral collide in a very satisfying manner. This is a multilevel movie where a discussion on temporal paradoxes is swiftly followed by a good-old punch up or an insane car chase. The final battle may be the whackiest seen on screen since the denouement of “Blazing Saddles.” Robert Pattinson shows up as a louche British agent; and Michael Caine – Mr. Nolan’s lucky charm – puts in his five minutes of screen time with dialogue that will become quotable merely due to it having passed through his lips.

One gripe though, and something that I haven’t been the only one to notice: The dialogue often veers toward the inaudible, which doesn’t really help with following the storyline. You would have thought by now that I would be able to understand someone when they talk through a mask; but when the characters in “Tenet” wear protective facial wear, I barely caught a bloody word of it. The roaring car engines, gunshots and explosions seize the airwaves to the general detriment of the vocals. Until I read that other viewers have had similar problems I feared that many decades of having my hearing battered by booming cinema sound systems had left lasting damage – or “Lucas Ear” as it’s known to E.N.T. specialists.

Otherwise, kudos to Mr. Nolan for creating such an entertaining curtain raiser to whatever cinematic age we’re lumbering into next. If you’re brave enough to be among a crowd right now (or stupid enough depending on your point of view) then “Tenet” is certainly worth your precious time. It’s a bold, punchy, blast of a movie that deserves a place alongside other Nolan crackers such as “Inception” and “The Prestige.” At least I’m pretty sure it does. I might need another watch before I’m entirely sure.


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