John David Washington drives Elizabeth Debicki to an offshore destination in Tenet. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

They say that life can only be understood backward but must be lived forward. Well, Christopher Nolan says, “Screw all that. We can do it the other way around.” With the exception of his Batman movies, his films are all about manipulating the element of time. While I haven’t loved them all, I’ve never had trouble following his stories through their temporal contortions.

Until now. His latest big-budget thriller, Tenet, has defeated me decisively. My inability to gain any sort of toehold in this film has forced me to draw one of two conclusions: Either Nolan has completely gone up his own ass, or he’s made an avant-garde masterpiece that is too intelligent and sophisticated for my puny little brain to comprehend. I’m fully prepared to accept the latter scenario if somebody else sorts the movie out for me. As I write this, though, my sneaking suspicion is that the former is closer to the truth.

John David Washington plays our nameless protagonist, a CIA agent who is captured while foiling a terrorist plot in Ukraine. When he chooses suicide rather than give up his colleagues, the whole operation is revealed to be an elaborate test that he passes so that a spymaster (Martin Donovan) can brief him on a highly classified case called Tenet. Objects that move backward in time have started making their way into our forward-rolling world, and if more of them make it through, it may lead to a time crunch that destroys everything in the universe. Our hero teams up with an English intel operative (Robert Pattinson), traces the objects to a sadistic Russian arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh), and seeks to get close to the man by cozying up to his battered British wife (Elizabeth Debicki).

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This much is new: This movie exists in the future perfect tense. Everywhere the agents look, they find evidence of things that will have happened. The whole thing is structured as a palindrome (like the movie’s title) centered on a shooting that drives our main character to go through the looking glass and into a world that’s moving backwards while he moves forwards, or so it looks to him. This leads to some admittedly cool action sequences when he fights a masked baddie who appears to defy gravity. The car chase on the freeway outside Tallinn features overturned cars that right themselves and pursue the agents in reverse. (Whatever they paid the stunt drivers, it wasn’t enough.) It all culminates in a massive raid on a Siberian compound, with soldiers in red armbands charging in alongside soldiers in blue armbands, who are running backwards while dead soldiers spring back up and bullets fly back into their guns. Nolan’s movies always look good, and here he creates set pieces like we haven’t seen before, set against locations that haven’t been overexposed in movies.

Having our anonymous man go back through the parts of the story he experienced fills in some gaps and otherwise inexplicable bits in the first half. Even so, considering how Nolan makes everything fit together so snugly in his narratives, there are a suspicious number of loose ends hanging here, like the business with a fake Goya sketch or a British spy chief (Michael Caine) whose presence appears to be ornamental. So much energy has been devoted to the idea behind the story that the actors have been swallowed up. The only one who registers is Branagh, a menacing bulldog-like villain whose eyes are black with rage as he carefully loops a belt around his knuckles and makes sure to stick his cufflinks in the punch holes so that they do additional damage when he hits his wife with it. His tall wife towers over him, yet you still understand why she’s terrified of him.

Nolan’s best films mix human pathos with their jumbo-sized brainteasers: an amnesiac’s doomed revenge quest in Memento; a cop lost in his own corruption in Insomnia; a father trying to reunite with his children in Inception. That’s missing here. One character advises our leading man not to bother understanding the time displacement, just to feel it. It would be better if Tenet gave us more to feel. That would make it easier to absorb all the confusion that this thriller sows.


Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, and Elizabeth Debicki. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Rated PG-13.