I’ve been re-watching Tenet in order to write a longer, definitive explanation of the plot and themes. But one question keeps growing louder and louder in my head. Why did Neil die? I understand how. And I’ll explain that. It’s the why that’s bothering me.
Let’s talk about what happened.
Neil and picking the lock
Neil’s path at the end of Tenet, in the final temporal invasion of Stalsk-12, is complicated. He starts out on the Blue Team that’s an hour ahead and working back through time. But midway through the mission, he switches to the Red Team that The Protagonist (John David Washington) is on with Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). This means instead of working in temporal opposition to them, he’s now in the same, forward flow of events.
This is how Neil’s able to drive the jeep and drop the rope and save The Protagonist and Ives by dragging them clear of the hypocenter as an explosion goes off. It’s also why he’s alive even though we’ve already seen his dead body in the hypocenter. Neil (Robert Pattinson) will have his final conversation with The Protagonist, saying it’s the “end of a beautiful friendship,” go through a turnstile, come out inverted, and hurry to his death.
In the hypocenter, The Protagonist and Ives ran into a locked door that prevented them from reaching Andrei Sator’s (Kenneth Branagh) main henchman, Volkov. If nothing’s done, Volkov will detonate the Algorithm and reverse the universal flow of time and entropy, causing all sorts of chaos. That’s when Inverted Neil, the one who just had the final conversation with The Protagonist, comes to the rescue. He’s going to pick the lock and save the day.
From Neil’s perspective, he runs down the tunnel to the hypocenter, wearing his backpack with the red string, and sees Ives and The Protagonist on the other side of the gate, fighting Volkov. The gate’s door is closed. So Neil opens it and stands holding it. He watches, as time, from his perspective, continues to invert. Ives goes back through the door to being knocked out on the ground. The Protagonist eventually does the same, moving away from Volkov, back through the gate.
This is where things get complicated.
When The Protagonist is through the gate, Neil waits as Volkov recovers from fleeing to the back rail. Volkov starts to approach the door (which was him in the act of fleeing from the door.) And this is when Neil starts to close the door. It just so happens that Neil closing the door coincides with Volkov firing a gun.
A lot of people thought Neil sacrificed himself on behalf of The Protagonist. But if that was the case, it seems weird that he would carefully close the door as he stepped in front of the bullet. We don’t have a shot of Neil’s eyes going from the gun to The Protagonist and back to the gun before he steps in front of it. It just looks like he picked a bad time to close the door.
I’m 99.9% positive Neil wasn’t sacrificing himself. To Neil, Volkov didn’t even have a gun aimed until right before the bullet inverts back through Neil’s head. All he would see is Volkov looking worried, shocked, shot, and getting closer and closer to the door.
Which begs the question, if Neil wasn’t sacrificing himself to save The Protagonist, why close the door in that exact moment? Why not leave the door open?
What’s happened’s happened, but why did it happen?
Within the logic of Tenet, there’s the answer of, “What’s happened’s happened.” Something Neil himself said. Because his body was dead when The Protagonist and Ives got there, there’s no changing things. But that doesn’t really explain why Neil made the choice he made.
The only logical explanation I can think of is that because Neil saw The Protagonist come through the door at that moment, it must mean that’s the moment the door opened. Which means that’s the moment he should close the door.
And because he didn’t see Volkov with a weapon, that’s why he just stepped between Volkov and The Protagonist, unsuspecting that there’d be a bullet suddenly reversing through time, into his skull.
That…makes sense? A lot of the time we see Inverted characters in Tenet, they’re kind of just figuring things out as they go and reacting moment to moment. This means that Neil’s death is, ultimately, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Which is something a movie can do and do well. But I don’t think it fits into the story and themes of Tenet.
We can look at the screenplay for a bit more info.
Volkov RUSHES FORWARD with his gun…
(over phone; in Russian, subtitled)
– Shoot him in the head. –
Vokov PULLS HIS TRIGGER – but the Dead Tenet Soldier has ‘RISEN’ to be in front of the gun ‘ABSORBING’ the bullet – then LEAPING to one side, ALIVE –
The Protagonist DIVES to where Ives is lying, GRABS his gun – Volkov TURNS, RUNNING FOR the winch-release –
He FIRES at Volkov, who goes down just short of the winch…
Ives struggles to his feet, checking his watch – ‘1:07’, ‘1:06’ …
Hearing BEEPS, Ives looks up. THE LOCK is open –
The Protagonist watches the Dead Tenet Soldier RACING BACKWARDS from the gate, out of the tunnel –Tenet Screenplay
You can see how thin the script was with this stuff. It says Neil leaps to one side after absorbing the bullet and is alive. Which, if we invert the order of events, it says Neil leapt in front of the bullet and died. That would imply a sacrifice. And maybe Neil sacrificing himself was the initial intention, but it’s not what we see in the final product. There’s no leap. Just a kind of slow shuffle to the side. Notice the other differences between script and film. The Protagonist doesn’t DIVE to where Ives is lying. He has his own gun. There’s no “WAIT! WAIT!” Ives doesn’t check his watch. We don’t hear beeping and the lock opening. And The Protagonist doesn’t see the Dead Tenet Soldier/Neil RACING BACKWARDS. It’s Ives who sees it.
So the screenplay is pretty meaningless here.
(Though it is worth noting that it says Neil does do something that unlocks the door. The movie is not so clear and it’s confused a lot of people who have gone back to watch the scene. You can’t tell if Neil ever picks the lock or not. There’s one brief second where he may be fiddling with the control panel but it’s not highlighted as something important. As far as we know, the door simply unlocked as an inverse reaction to Neil shutting and locking it.)
It would seem that when writing Tenet, Christopher Nolan thought of Neil’s death as a sacrifice. But when filming the actual scene, he decided to downplay that moment.
The main reason you’d downplay the moment is you don’t want to indicate it’s Neil. If we had a close up on the eyes of the “Dead Tenet Soldier” then cut to Volkov’s gun, cut to The Protagonist, cut to the Dead Tenet Soldier leaping…it becomes a bit more obvious this is someone who knows The Protagonist. If you mute the reaction, playing it off like it’s just some unfortunate, expendable side character, then the reveal is, arguably, more shocking and powerful. You seriously think Neil is okay, until you realize that’s him and he died saving the day.
The concept is heartbreaking.
But I still don’t understand why.
I know, I know. “What’s happened happened.” Neil can’t change himself dying because he’s already dead. I’m not talking about the logic within the movie. I’m talking about Christopher Nolan, at his computer, typing the script. He didn’t have to write Neil LEAPING in front of the bullet.
Why wouldn’t Neil just…shoot Volkov? Why wouldn’t Neil tackle him? Disarm him? Knock the arm away? The guy is a highly trained special agent who travels around time and does all sorts of dangerous stuff. We see him competently fight and soldier. It’s not like he’s merely a brainy guy and would be overwhelmed by Volkov immediately so this is all he could do.
Nolan could have had Neil make any of those choices. Or had an entirely different situation altogether where Neil is forced to sacrifice himself.
I just can’t get over the secondary protagonist going down simply because he randomly chose to close a door at an inopportune time*. Or, even worse, simply leapt in front of the gun, while closing the gate, as if he had no better option.
It just feels like a betrayal of the character. And kind of lazy writing. Nolan wanted Neil to die in that moment because it made for a superficially powerful twist and maximized the emotional payoff of the film’s broader inversion trope. So he had Neil die and left it vague as to why, hoping the audience will be so caught up in the drama of everything else going on that they won’t look too closely at how flimsy the logic is.
A similar thing happens in The Dark Knight Rises.
The Dark Knight Rises: Batman’s return to Gotham
Midway through Dark Knight Rises, Batman loses a fight to the film’s main villain, Bane. Bane breaks Batman’s back and sends him to this sketchy pit prison that’s implied to be in the Middle East or Africa (though was filmed in India). Five months pass. I repeat: five months pass. During that time, Bane seizes control of Gotham by threatening to detonate a nuke. The criminal element rules the city and it’s as ugly as you’d imagine. And the US Government has the entire place surrounded, as one of Bane’s stipulations is no one can come in or out or he’ll blow everything up. There’s legit a scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt tries to walk a bunch of kids across a bridge only to be told by a police officer that they’ll shoot him and blow up the bridge with the kids on it.
That’s the kind of lockdown we’re dealing with. Also, Bane has collapsed Wayne Industries. Meaning Batman has no money. All of his usual advanced gadgets and resources? They’re also inaccessible. And he was taken to the pit by Bane’s people. It’s not like he has a phone or wallet on his person. There’s a huge question of how Bruce Wayne could possibly get from The Pit back to Gotham?
How does Nolan address this? By not addressing it at all.
He just skips ahead to Bruce already being back to Gotham. You’re left to assume because Batman’s Batman he found his way back.
My favorite part of this is Batman’s big public return involves lighting a giant, flaming bat symbol on a bridge for everyone in the city to see. This happens when Batman has Gordon toss a flare onto some ice. And the flare ignites a line of flammable material that starts on the ice, travels to the foot of the bridge, goes up along the bridge, until it lights this gigantic bat symbol at the highest point of the bridge’s architecture. It’s a cool visual. But think about it. Think through the logistics of this.
You need the flammable material. Then you have to get the material to the highest point of the bridge’s architecture. Then you need to paint the bridge in such a way with the material that when the material is on fire it makes a giant bat. The bridge, according to this article, is 85 feet across. That means Batman has to repel from the top of the bridge and swing back and forth across 85 feet worth of canvas. THAT’S NOT EASY. He not only makes the bat, but then has to create the aforementioned ignition line from the bat along the bridge, to the ice, to the spot will Gordon will be standing hours later. BATMAN EVEN PUTS A FLARE IN THE EXACT SPOT FOR GORDON TO FIND.
Did I mention there’s less than 12 hours until the nuke goes off? The entire Gotham police force is trapped underground. And Bane had sentenced Gordon to death just a few hours earlier. Batman’s doing arts and crafts while the city is nearing total destruction and his friend could be killed at any moment. Yet somehow, even though he’s been away from 5 months, he knows Bane’s henchmen won’t kill Gordon right away and will walk Gordon out onto the ice, right near the base of the bridge, and he will have time to save Gordon.
It’s insane. Absolutely insane.
Sure, there are arguments you can make about Batman using technology to do make the bat faster or having it painted years earlier as a “just in case.” But the point is that Nolan often just skips over kind of important details because he’s more concerned about the larger picture. The important thing wasn’t how Bruce Wayne got home from the pit prison, it was that he conquered the pit prison. It doesn’t matter how he made that bat fire, it just matters that the flaming bat symbol is a battle cry to the city of Gotham that Bane’s reign of terror is over and The Bat has returned.
Things like this happen in every single Nolan movie. It’s arguably his greatest flaw as a filmmaker, that he cares more about the emotional power of something rather than the logic of it. But, hey, he’s one of the most successful and beloved filmmakers of the 21st century. So he’s definitely doing something right.
All of this is to say that Neil’s death in Tenet isn’t something to be solved. Nolan didn’t care about the why or even really the how. He wanted the payoff. And that’s pretty much the secret to watching Nolan movies. Go along for the ride, and you’ll be rewarded. In Tenet’s own words, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”
I want to return to this line, real fast.
“I just can’t get over the secondary protagonist going down simply because he randomly chose to close a door at an inopportune time*”
I want to clarify—in the right story, you can absolutely have a random act at an inopportune time be the reason a character passes away. It’s not that you can never do such a thing. Just that, to me, Tenet isn’t the kind of story that’s developed the kind of themes necessary to pull something like that off. Even though Tenet is really focused on time, it’s not focused on timing. It would be one thing if it developed, over the course of the story, themes around the danger of inversion and how it’s easy to be in the wrong place when something’s happening. Whether explicitly or subtextually.
It’s like in The Departed, when DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan finally bites the dust, it’s not at the hand of a major character or during a climactic gunfight. It’s a random character in the aftermath of a climactic scene. Viewers think they’re safe. That the character they like is safe. Only for this minor, minor lout, Trooper Barrigan, to suddenly pull the trigger. It’s shocking and wild and one of the biggest surprises I had while watching a movie. A minor character taking out DiCaprio worked in The Departed because so much of the movie revolves around being undercover and people not having the allegiances you expect them to have.
Costigan is a Costello henchman who’s actually a police officer.
Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) is a police officer who’s actually a Costello mole.
Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) is a crime lord who is an FBI informant.
Dr. Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga) likes Billy but ends up with Colin but cheats on Colin with Billy.
The entire time, the viewer feels superior because we know Costigan is undercover. We know Colin’s a traitor. We know Madolyn really likes Billy. We’re comfortable and content with our omniscience. Until, it turns out, we weren’t all-knowing. We had no idea Trooper Barrigan was, like Colin, a Costello mole. So when Barrigan pulls the trigger on Costigan, it shatters the confidence we felt. It reveals there’s information we never knew. In that moment, we lose our position of power. Which is why it’s such a satisfying scene, even if we hate what happens to Costigan.
That’s the kind of subtextual development I want in a movie. And I don’t think Tenet really does anything like that. At least not with Neil and Neil’s demise.