This article contains mild plot details for Tenet
The villains of Christopher Nolan's films do not always come clearly marked. His Batman trilogy might have made them apparent with make-up and face masks, but outside the comic book dichotomy, the director puts forward characters who are morally grey. In Memento, his brilliant 2000 thriller about a man with amnesia trying to work out who killed his wife before his brain is wiped, the hero becomes the villain, his true character coming into focus as we realise our perception has been distorted by the way we are experiencing time.
Twenty years later and the villains of Tenet, his latest time-bending, mind-twisting blockbuster, are just as slippery. As with the mechanic of time inversion which fuels the film, in Tenet characters turn on their head from villain to hero, protagonist to antagonist, good to bad.
Tenet is not, as has been theorised, a sequel to Inception. Instead, Nolan says it is doing for the spy movie genre what Inception did for the heist genre, with the same fragmented sense of time and physics pulling the rug from beneath our feet.
It is in this global world of espionage that John David Washington's character, known only as The Protagonist, is our guide. The film's title refers to a secret organisation which he is inducted into, a group that is trying to prevent World War III, and is also discovering inverted objects whose temporal physics have been reversed. This means that bullets aren't shot, they are caught, becoming weapons armed with the experience of the future and the ability to effect our past. As Robert Pattinson's character Neil, whose motives for helping The Protagonist are murky to say the least, says, "Does your head hurt yet?"
Tenet arrives at a moment when our own time feels at its most bendy and porous, one when the idea of the future wanting to uproot the past to change what is in front of us sounds almost conceivable, given the twilight zone we are living in. Despite loudly proclaiming that it's not a time-travel movie, Tenet does very much feel like one, though it manages to move beyond the gimmick of playing out sequences in reverse, and past the head-scratching physics of a temporal war between the past and the future, thanks to the cast of characters it assembles.
Perhaps most compelling of these is the uber-wealthy Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator, a target in the film's evisceration of the billionaire class, who passes through the murky corridors of the world untouchable by the law. Sator, played by a mirthless Kenneth Branagh, is one of the very real villains around the world who amass obscene amounts of wealth while hiding out on a Succession-esque yacht behind a line of henchmen.
Tenet's real target is the world we are already living in, a playground for the one per cent where arms dealing and shady trafficking are carried out in spots of diplomatic uncertainty, like the Freeports in the film, which are meant to be where the rich store art to avoid tax but end up being used as havens for illegal activity.
For Sator, his estranged wife Kat (a brilliant Elizabeth Debicki) is an asset he can exploit and cast off as collateral damage when he needs to. The hold he has over her, saying "if I can't have you no one can", and coercive abuse she is subjected to is the human heart which tethers us to this world as time turns before our eyes.
Sator is described at one point as a man who "holds all of our lives in his hands", believing himself to be the protagonist of the story who is saving the world by ending it. A man gilded in wealth and protected from consequence with enough power to play God, Sator is not only the perfect Nolan villain, but of our times too, a villain who believes he's the hero of the story.
Tenet is released 26 August
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