Note: This article contains spoilers for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.
It’s frequently argued that Christopher Nolan is an unemotional director. One famous but anonymous producer described him to The L.A. Times as “a cold guy who makes cold films,” even if those who have worked with Nolan would strongly disagree.
The caricature of Nolan in the internet’s imagination is radically different from the director who makes movies. There are deep reservoirs of emotion to be found in films like Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar. These are stories about characters driven by guilt and regret, love and obsession. Nolan’s characters feel those primal emotions so strongly that they often threaten to erupt.
Nevertheless, these familiar critiques of Nolan’s filmmaking have resurfaced in discussions of his latest film. Although reviews are mostly positive, Tenet has been criticized for being as “cold as ice,” lacking “a certain humanity,” and failing to “move the heart.” These are familiar criticisms of Nolan’s films, and they make a certain amount of sense in the context of the director’s interest in high concepts and big ideas.
In the case of Tenet, it is notable that the film’s central male characters are all archetypal. The anonymous protagonist (John David Washington) has been designed as an archetypal espionage thriller protagonist like James Bond. Ironically, he is one of Nolan’s most flippant lead characters, maintaining a wry sense of humor. Although motivated by a fundamental decency, he is intentionally designed as a blank slate.
However, the heart of Tenet lies with the character of Katherine “Kat” Barton (Elizabeth Debicki). This is interesting for a number of reasons, most of which revolve around Nolan’s pet tropes and the manner in which he employs them. Kat is recognizable as two different Nolan archetypes folded into one. Her initial positioning in the narrative suggests Nolan’s archetypal lost loves, but she develops into one of his desperate parental protagonists. Debicki is phenomenal in the role.
Like any number of directors from John Ford to Alfred Hitchcock to Sam Peckinpah, Nolan has a set of thematic preoccupations and narrative tropes that fascinate him. A large part of what makes his work interesting is the way in which he is continuously reworking and reconfiguring them. Nolan has (perhaps justifiably) been critiqued for the extent to which his early films rely on the trope of the “dead wife” and evoke the cliché of “women in refrigerators.”
Nolan’s early films are populated with dead women who motivate his male leads. In Memento, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) seeks to avenge his dead wife Catherine (Jorja Fox). In The Prestige, the feud between Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) is sparked by the death of Angier’s wife, Julia (Piper Perabo). In The Dark Knight, both Bruce Wayne (Bale) and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) are shattered by the death of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Inevitably, Nolan’s male leads are trapped in the lies they tell themselves about these women. Leonard invented his wife’s murder to give him purpose and assuage his guilt for his part in her death. In a heated argument about his obsession with Borden, Angier yells, “I don’t care about my wife!” Before she died, Rachel wrote Bruce a letter telling him that she did not love him, a letter that Alfred (Michael Caine) destroyed. These are bitter and biting critiques of masculinity, not fantasies.
Still, there’s no denying that, outside of Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) in Memento, Nolan’s female characters were typically underdeveloped and underexplored. Inception literalizes this, as Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is haunted not by his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), but a projection of her. Ariadne (Ellen Page) rightly calls out the men around Cobb for enabling him and the danger posed by this part of Cobb’s psyche.
With the obvious exception of Dunkirk, Nolan’s subsequent films work hard to develop their female characters. Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is the moral center of The Dark Knight Rises, and Talia Al-Ghul (Marion Cotillard) is presented as a fully formed mirror to Bruce Wayne. In Interstellar, Brand (Hathaway) delivers the movie’s thesis statement and is proven right after being dismissed as being too emotional by her male colleague Cooper (Matthew McConaughey).
Kat feels like a culmination of this trend. If Tenet borrows its tropes from espionage thrillers, Kat is presented as a woman in trouble. Sir Michael Crosby (Michael Caine) suggests that she can be exploited to reach her husband, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). The anonymous protagonist jokes about seducing her and later plays on her husband’s intense jealousy and possessiveness to advance his mission. This setup establishes Kat as something close to a classic Bond girl.
This framing of Kat suggests a particular type of Bond girl — the disposable one. She evokes the Bond girl that Bond seduces to get closer to the villain and who is murdered for that betrayal: Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) in Goldfinger, Andrea Anders (Maud Adams) in The Man with the Golden Gun, Corinne Dufour (Corinne Clery) in Moonraker, and Countess Lisl Von Schlaf (Cassandra Harris) in For Your Eyes Only, to name just a few. As such, Kat seems like a dead wife waiting to happen.
However, as Tenet develops, Kat becomes the movie’s emotional core. Tenet is at its most human when it fixates on Andrei’s abusive and controlling relationship with Kat. Despite his opulence and his thick accent, Andrei is not a romantic fantasy Bond villain, but a deconstruction. He is “a grubby little man playing power games with a wife that no longer loves (him).” It’s grotesque, unsettling, and horrific.
The dynamic between Andrei and Kat is perhaps the most grounded (albeit horrific) dynamic in a Nolan film since Memento or Insomnia. It is brutal, vivid, and personal in a way that blockbusters rarely are. Tenet had to cut a few frames for its British release to secure a 12A rating, and those frames focused on Andrei’s abuse towards Kat. Tenet refuses to downplay or romanticize Kat’s situation, but that doesn’t mean it dismisses her.
Kat’s character arc shapes the film. Kat gets the emotional hinge on which Nolan’s protagonists usually pivot. Nolan’s later movies typically lean heavily on the idea of parents separated from their children: Alfred Borden in The Prestige, Dom Cobb in Inception, arguably Alfred in The Dark Knight Rises, Cooper in Interstellar, and even Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) in Dunkirk. Kat is haunted by the fear that Andrei might take her away from their son. Forget annihilation — those are the stakes.
Tenet is sort of a time travel story, and so it inevitably gets caught up in debates about determinism. Neil (Robert Pattinson) helpfully explains to the hero that — “optimistically” — the fact they even exist to try means that they must succeed in their mission to stop Sator. However, Tenet insists free will exists. Laura (Clémence Poésy) explains that even objects moving backwards in time are subject to decisions made by people setting them in motion. To catch a bullet, “you have to have dropped it.”
Still, as the character who exists at the furthest remove from this inversion, Kat exercises the greatest agency. The men in the film repeatedly attempt to manipulate her, but it’s ultimately Kat who makes the movie’s clearest decision. Midway through the film, Andrei taunts his wife for her passivity — her inability to kill him and be free. At the climax, even with the fate of the world at stake, Kat chooses to kill him. It’s a huge risk, but no different from the ones Cobb or Coop might take.
There are points in Tenet where these mechanics can seem impersonal and inhuman. It is revealed that the entire plot was orchestrated by the hero’s future self and that Neil has always known more than he let on. Much of the setup and payoff is plot-driven, such as Sir Michael’s off-hand mention of a remote nuclear detonation in the first act that pays off in the third or an encounter with two mysterious figures in an Oslo freeport that is explained only later.
In the midst of all this, the movie’s biggest emotional setup and payoff concerns Kat. In the first act, she remembers returning to her husband’s yacht and watching a strange woman dive into the ocean. “I envied her,” Kat confesses. “Her freedom.” Naturally, this being a time travel story, it is later revealed that Kat is the woman diving from the yacht. It is a bit of plot payoff, but it also closes an emotional arc. Kat literally becomes the woman that she wants to be. Her journey is complete.
The closing shot of Tenet is not given to its protagonist or to Neil. It is not a clever twist on the movie’s time travel premise. It is a simple shot of Kat collecting her son from school and walking into the distance. Forget the “temporal pincer movements” or the logic of “inversion;” the heart of Tenet lies in a parent reunited with her child — and free to go home.