Two sides of the same coin.

Review: Tenet and Nomadland (2020)

By Edo Murić

Two ideologically indistinguishable films, hidden beneath two very different forms. Let’s start with how different these films are. One is a mega-budget sci-fi blockbuster, with an expressionless protagonist, an anti-actor if you will, who is shooting bullets most of the time, while being involved in an intricate convoluted plot that no one can comprehend. The other is led by a complete opposite, one of the most expressive actresses ever, who is forced to employ all of her character shaping tricks, even when it comes off as patronizing, in order to sustain the veneer of interest in a rather flat story about american nomadic subcultures.

Tenet’s problem with bad acting is ironic, considering the fact that Christopher Nolan had an opposite problem with Interstellar. If anything drowned that otherwise fascinating and brave film, it is the overacting of Matthew McConaughey. But it is also about how badly the central character in Tenet was written, though I am aware that he was supposed to be at least partially a cipher. But neither is John David Washington another Alain Delon, nor is Christopher Nolan Jean-Pierre Melville. The hollow character is listed as “Protagonist”, which is not a dead giveaway that the screenwriters didn’t have an idea what to do with him, but something that serves a bigger, rather ideological purpose.

Like Tenet’s central character, Nomadland’s Fern (played by Frances McDormand) is also a flawless character. What in the former is articulated through the ability to effectively shoot people and save battered wives of stereotypical Russian oligarchs, in the latter is presented as Jesus-like goodness and ability to listen. Each of these characters only have a choice between being good and great, both in their own way.

Unfortunately, the presence of both of these actors has a distracting effect of taking you out of the film. In the case of Washington, his inability to act, especially when sharing a scene with other (proper) actors is at times madenning. In the case of the oscar-winning McDormand, it is her super-talent and overtly obvious characterisation, as well as overzealous attempts at authenticity, that create a barrier between her and other characters, who are mostly real people telling their life stories. To be fair to her, no oscar can compete with that. When they are on screen, it is when the film shines and is almost sublime, rendering the focus on the Fern character as a mere filler. Fern should have been a journalist, immersing herself in the world of these people, not one of them.

What makes these two films ideologically similar is the fact that they idealise a sort of ultra-individualism, and they do it very effectively. They are both fairy-tales in that respect, but they also give us counter arguments and touch upon some noble concerns. In spite of the plot complexity of Tenet, its science fiction heavy story can be summarised as a war waged by the descendents of the western civilisation in the future against ourselves in the present time, all because of how carelessly we have been destroying our planet. A link between the two sides is a Russian oligarch, a fatalist who solicits a possible destruction of the world based on the same concerns. There is a sort of a dialogue with his arguments, sandwiched between big action set pieces and explosions. Our brave Protagonist and the film at large engage him for a moment and give him counter arguments. And they are: sure, we are awful and we destroy the Earth. But as long as each one of us is an individual, we will have the things under control. The very fact that we are all potential Protagonists in our stories, or in exciting technological sci-fi thrillers such as Tenet, is what makes everything work.

Similarly in Nomadland: sure, there was that economic crash in 2008, and it forced some people to become homeless. But hey, so many people we meet on the way think being homeless is a blessing and do it out of choice. They can explore the frontier, live freely, without real constraints. They can travel to the South, just like birds do, and when the season changes, they can travel back to the North. And if they want to better their situation, there is always a possibility to work for Amazon.

It isn’t all rosy, for sure. The film doesn’t shy away from the down sides, and presents some of those arguments as well, like loneliness of individualism, for example. But like in Tenet, as long as you are the protagonist of your story, as long as you manage to convince yourself that everything you do was out of your own volition and that we are the sole factors of our destiny, everything will be fine in our lovely neoliberal world.

Both films are worth seeing.