The first time John David Washington’s assured and collected The Protagonist meets the floppy haired Neil (Robert Pattinson) in Tenet, it’s at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club. He needs someone to introduce him to a weapons dealer, the first of many, increasingly elaborate wild goose chases he goes on to prevent a war in the future from destroying the present. These life-or-death stakes dictate how the conversation begins — Neil is confident of securing entry into the dealer’s house, not of making it out alive — but soon, an undercurrent of flirtatiousness creeps in. Neil signals a passing waiter, orders himself a vodka tonic, and then, without asking, a diet coke for The Protagonist, who attributes the accuracy of his order to Neil being well-informed. The stranger is, after all, is as mysterious a figure as he is, in an equally secretive line of work. Caught off guard and unwilling to let him know he has the upper hand, The Protagonist says he prefers soda water. “No you don’t,” Neil chuckles.
The scene assumes a much larger significance by the end of the film. Neil and The Protagonist have staved off global annihilation, but it comes at a cost. Neil must sacrifice himself. As he asks The Protagonist to let him go, he drops a bombshell — the two aren’t strangers at all, they’ve known each other for years. Or rather, they will. The Protagonist’s future self is friends with Neil’s past one. Neil’s death marks the end of their relationship for him, but its beginning for The Protagonist, who will now seek him out in the future by travelling back in time, kickstarting the loop all over again. Tenet is no longer a cold mass of quantum physics, paradoxes and algorithms, it’s the story of two ill-fated men trapped in different pockets in time finding warmth and companionship in each other until the cruelty of that time’s warped fabric ultimately rips them apart. Neil is doomed to live out half a relationship in which The Protagonist has no memory of their time together. The Protagonist is doomed to start the relationship knowing that this is what kills Neil. It’s a plot twist that made me sob.
How emotionally accessible you find Tenet depends on how invested you are in this relationship. Without it, the film runs the risk of feeling like a labyrinth composed entirely of math puzzles, with no cathartic payoff even for those who do manage to find the exit. Look elsewhere for emotional resonance and you’ll come away lacking. There’s no love lost between the film’s other couple — the Hitchcockian blonde Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and her abusive husband, Sator (Kenneth Branagh). Affection is a currency that the two alternately barter and weaponize. Kat’s love for her son is real, and spelled out several times, but doesn’t land precisely because it’s verbalized and not felt. This leaves Neil and The Protagonist. In a film that alternates between an overabundance of exposition that only complicates certain concepts further, and an absolute refusal to explain others coherently, their relationship is the one thing that, quite simply, makes sense. “I found everything I needed in the long-drawn gazes, and that sweet-final promise of an end and a beginning,” says my colleague Prathyush Parasuraman.
Maybe I’m reading too much into their banter and easy familiarity, or even the insane chemistry between Washington and Pattinson, but to be fair, a lot of this also boils down to director Christopher Nolan’s inability to write compelling women. In his movies, they’re either dead, or devices that drive the male protagonist’s plot, sometimes both simultaneously. His male characters, and by default, their relationships, become so much richer, more rewarding and offer so much more scope for reading between the lines, (inadvertently) lending themselves to homoerotic interpretations. Entertainment website Vulture.com called his The Prestige (2006) “a film about two middle-aged men fighting about who is better at magic…a high-camp gay comedy…a brilliant homoerotic soap opera.”
Neil is doomed to live out half a relationship in which The Protagonist has no memory of their time together. The Protagonist is doomed to start the relationship knowing that this is what kills Neil. It’s a plot twist that made me sob
While I wouldn’t go that far, I’ll admit the first time I wondered whether Nolan’s gay subtext was intentional was Inception (2010). The smooth-talking Eames (Tom Hardy) and uptight Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) bicker like an old married couple, each jibe playfully revealing a little more of their shared personal history and doing little to mask their genuine affection for each other. It isn’t meant to be — Arthur contrives a situation so he can kiss the architect Ariadne (Elliot Page). There are more than 7,500 stories on fanfiction site Archive Of Our Own that, like me, believe he should’ve ended up with Eames instead.
But it wasn’t Inception I was thinking of when Tenet ended. The film hews closer to Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). In both films, emissaries from the future transmit data to the present in the hope of circumventing planetary destruction. Interstellar’s solution is for human beings to find new, hospitable worlds. Tenet’s is for the future generation to wipe out the present one so the Earth remains pristine. In both cases, a mysterious figure attempts to save the protagonist. Murph (Mackenzie Foy) in Interstellar is haunted by coded messages warning her father (Matthew McConaughey) not to set off on his interplanetary journey. He ignores them, only to discover it’s his future self transmitting those messages back in time after the mission fails. “You were my ghost,” says his daughter, when all the pieces click into place for her as an adult. Similarly, by virtue of their overlapping timelines, Neil saves The Protagonist during an opera house siege at the beginning of the film, before they’ve even met, and once again at the end, through his sacrifice. Neil becomes The Protagonist’s ghost.
This revelation retroactively lends the film the angle of a tragic romance, giving it a resounding emotional core that’s anchored in their relationship, despite the vast majority of it occurring before the events of Tenet begin. Imagine what a sequel could do.