An illustration of a figure with their hands to the head in confusion. Marks of exclamation frame their head. A bucket of popcorn sits next to them.

The Art of the Confusing: A Review of 'Tenet'

Edits by Lily Pang

What makes a great film, great?

It depends on the film – and who you might ask. To a Tarantino fan, the answer may lie in gripping action, memorable dialogue, and the cinematic technique of an evident cinephile. To a George Lucas fan, world-building and adventure are key.

And then there are fans of Christopher Nolan. Right now, cinemas are screening the British-American filmmaker’s eleventh feature film: the US $200 million-budget Tenet. Even by Nolan’s standards, the work is a wild ride – and frequently incomprehensible. Thus, the creator of such mind-benders as Memento and Inception has once again affirmed his own interpretation of cinematic greatness: complexity.

But does Tenet offer greatness?

Unlike Nolan’s amnesia-centred Memento and his consciousness-themed Inception, Tenet’s subject is time itself. The film’s content is not confined to time ‘travel’, either: from the viewer’s perspective, the action in Tenet quite literally flows forwards and backwards at various points. The stakes are high: characters are fighting to save not only the world, but everything that has ever happened.

That makes for some dazzling cinematography. There is something thrilling about seeing gunfire and hand-to-hand combat in reverse, not to mention reverse car chases and explosions. The enormous amount of money poured into this film is continuously evident.

Yet, if Tenet’s storyline seems daunting to follow, that is because it is. Nolan quite patently believes in the philosophy that, in film, ‘showing is better than telling’. Dialogue is seldom used to explain what is happening. When characters do talk, they do not waste a word. That frequently leaves a lot to be desired.

This 150-minute film, therefore, unashamedly demands every second of the viewer’s attention. Those wishing to use the bathroom at the cinema and understand the plot will find themselves unable to do both. If asked to summarise the film for others, viewers may struggle.  

It is true that some of that confusion is wrapped up intermittently, particularly at the film’s conclusion. Yet, moviegoers may find themselves grappling with Nolan’s Art of the Confusing for large stretches of viewing. That will be more satisfying for some onlookers than others.

For those considering this film, it would be unjust to solely comment on its complex plot. Tenet has more than its storyline adding to, and detracting from, its favour.

I’ll start with its merits. Notably, Tenet features outstanding acting from its entire cast. What is more, Tenet is the rare type of story that encourages viewers to consider complex themes – like time, war, and loss – from different perspectives. Nolan grappled with Tenet’s central ideas for more than a decade. Depending on their mental preparedness, viewers may reap the rewards.

Keener eyes have accused the film of further shortcomings. Brian Loyd of stated that poor sound mixing “often” rendered dialogue inaudible, though I did not perceive that issue. With cause, many reviewers perceive the film’s Russian villain as a ‘Bond-esque trope. In a scathing review, Mike McCahill of IndieWire labelled the film “humourless”. Evidently, humour is not a goal for which Nolan set out in this World-War-Three flick. Yet granted the film’s mental and emotional strain, I must agree that occasional relief would have added to his product.

All in all, I find myself recalling the words offered by Rotten Tomatoes for the  Netflix series Midnight Gospel I also recently reviewed. Like that series, this “strange brew won’t be for all tastes, but those willing to drink deep will find a wealth of vibrant visuals and illuminating insights.” (That is, if they’re lucky.)




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