This feature contains Tenet spoilers.
I think this is the end of a beautiful friendship. Those are the (near) final words of the ever wry Neil in Tenet. Riffing on the last line of dialogue from another Warner Bros. film, Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, it’s a wink and a nudge from Christopher Nolan toward classic Hollywood cinema. But it’s also an admission by the Robert Pattinson character that he is at least vaguely aware that he’s headed toward his death, and though he is about to die, his relationship with the Protagonist (John David Washington) has only just begun.
On first viewing it’s a bit of a bewildering revelation. In fact, many watched the whole film without realizing the Robert Pattinson character had already died onscreen before he saved the Protagonist and Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), plus the Algorithm, from certain death in the bowels of subterranean Siberia. And, speaking candidly, even I was initially a little bit foggy on whether Neil really died, as well as when exactly he first met Our Man Protag in the future-past.
But with the movie gaining renewed interest on HBO Max, now seems like an excellent time to revisit Nolan’s most trenchant timeline to date, and just where the man who calls himself Neil falls in it.
When We First Meet Neil
Technically, the first time Neil appears onscreen is during the movie’s opening moments at the opera house in Ukraine. Neil is the fella who fires an inverted bullet into his gun, killing the corrupt cop (or mercenary) who is working for Sator.
Like everything with the opening sequence, it’s a tad confusing since all characters—cops, undercover CIA agents, and undercover gangsters/military personnel participating in what is secretly a “vanishing” hit—dress the same way. That includes Neil. But after viewing the movie all the way around, we can recognize Neil is the Protagonist’s savior because the mysterious not-a-cop who shoots the evil not-a-cop with a reverse bullet is wearing a backpack with a red string tag.
At the end of the movie, we see Neil walk off with that same backpack and tag (more on that later). So Neil knew to be at the Kiev opera house on this day to save the Protagonist, likely because the Protagonist told him about the event sometime in the future and/or past.
Indeed, when the Protagonist first properly meets Neil in Mumbai, and finally gets a look at Pattinson’s gorgeous mug, Neil has actually been friends with our main character for years. As he later explains to the Protagonist on an empty Siberian landscape, “You have a future in the past, years ago for me, years from now for you.” Which explains his already cheeky sense of familiarity with the Protagonist on their first linear meeting, with Neil knowing that his buddy never drinks on the job and only orders Diet Coke.
At the end of the film, Pattinson paraphrases Claude Rains’ famous line of dialogue to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, but the duo’s instant camaraderie in India here reminds me of other “buddies at war” movies from yesteryear, including The Man Who Would Be King (1975), which starred Sean Connery and Michael Caine on misadventures in India. Considering the setting and Caine’s presence in this film—as well as the overt James Bond influences on Tenet —it’s hard to imagine this is coincidental for Nolan.
In any event, Neil completes the circle by helping recruit the man who really recruited him into the Tenet organization. For much of the rest of the film, he’s patiently letting the Protagonist know how this all works and helping with the mission at hand. That includes leaning into his British foppishness by posing as a rich man wanting to use a freeport tax haven he’s actually about to rob, and it includes stopping the Protagonist from killing his future self in a fistfight.
It really isn’t until the end of the movie Neil begins going his own way again through both directions in time.
When We Last See Neil(s)
During the end of the movie, Neil and the Protagonist are on different sides of a temporal pincer movement in Siberia. This assault on the site where Sator (Kenneth Branagh) first began amassing his fortune also not-so-coincidentally is occurring on the exact same day as the opera siege in Kiev. This is by design, because when Katharine (Elizabeth Debicki) thinks about the time her vile husband was last happy, it was on their trip to Vietnam. However, he vanished one evening during that trip because he had business in Kiev, where his men were retrieving another piece of the Algorithm (which we explain here).
It’s actually Neil who puts together that Sator left his yacht 10 days ago on the 14th because of the siege. At the time, the Protagonist shoots a suspicious look and asks, “How do you know about that?” (Psst, because he was there too, dummy.)
So along with a fella named Ives, the leader of the paramilitary side of the Tenet operation, Our Man Protag and Neil participate in the siege to retrieve the Algorithm on Sator’s perfect day, which is thereby also the day he’ll assemble all the pieces in Russia. The Protagonist is part of the Red Team, who will be performing the operation through the normal direction of time while Neil is part of the Blue Team, which observed the operation from afar and then were inverted, traveling backward in time, knowing what they need to do to be victorious.
And if that is a little hard to grasp, we see Neil effectively perform a temporal pincer movement within the operation’s larger temporal pincer movement to clarify how this all works. During the siege of Sator’s hometown, Neil is the cheeky Blue Team member in a gas mask who helps fire a rocket launcher, clearing a path for the Protagonist and Ives to enter the closed city’s tunnels. He then sees Sator’s right-hand goon lower himself from a helicopter and go into the tunnels from a different entry point. In the film, we see this from Neil’s perspective. Since Neil’s entropy has been reversed, he is traveling through time in reverse, however everything with normal entropy will appear reversed to him, including the thug’s arrival by chopper.
Neil then abandons the rest of the Blue Team to run off, as we later learn, to reverse his entropy again and provide a helping hand to Our Man Protag and Ives from the explosion that is to come. With that said, we get the classic Nolan misdirection in this moment since we also see Neil running with his gasmask back on toward the tunnel in which Goon #1 entered.
That is because at this moment there are three Neils on the battlefield. There is the one who is going to reverse his entropy to save the Protagonist and Ives; there is the one who, with normal entropy, is driving a truck to save Ives and the Protagonist; and then there’s the one who’s already done that, and reversed his entropy again and who is now going to open the door that will be blocking Ives and the Protagonist’s way. Since he already knows they saved the world, he knows exactly what he needs to do.
“I’m the only one who can get that door open in time, right Ives?” Neil asks at the linear end of the movie. “I don’t know a locksmith as good as you,” Ives cracks back. Boom. It’s a temporal pincer movement within a larger temporal pincer movement. And since this is happening concurrently with the opera house siege in Kiev that means there are technically FOUR Neils chewing bubble gum and kicking ass. (Does your head hurt, yet?)
When we see the climax of the film play out in the missile silos below, we are watching the events from the Protagonist’s point-of-view, which means time is flowing in the natural direction. It’s why when he gets there, a masked Blue Team member with a backpack attached to a red string and tag is already dead on the other side of the locked door. That is Neil’s corpse, which means, speaking strictly from a linear perspective, this is the last time we see Neil in Tenet: a martyr who’s taken a bullet for his buddy the Protag.
However, since the dead Neil had his entropy reversed yet again, he dies while moving in reverse. It’s why we see him rise up and take a bullet for Neil while opening the door to the missile silo, allowing the Protagonist and Ives to get in there and claim the Algorithm. But in reverse, it looks like Neil has risen from the dead to open the door for our living heroes—a ghost from the future.
The Protagonist puts this altogether at the linear end of the film when he, Ives, and Neil are discussing what to do with the pieces of the Algorithm. Neil rather knowingly gives his share of the Algorithm to the Protagonist before announcing he’s going to go back into the past for another pass with reversed entropy.
“It’s me in there, again,” Neil says, “weaving another past in the fabric of this mission.” It’s unclear whether he knows he’s about to die, but by spotting Neil’s backpack, the Protagonist realizes in this moment it’s his newfound friend who died down there in the tunnels and also saved his life in Kiev. He asks Neil if they can try to do things differently—implying to Neil that he’s about to die. But like a good Tenet man, Neil refuses to tempt fate by trying to change it.
“What’s happened’s happened,” Neil says, “which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. It’s not an excuse to do nothing.” He sadly adds, “Now let me go.”
Before he dies though, Neil offers one last head-spinning nugget: “This whole operation is a temporal pincer movement.” The Protagonist’s operation to be exact. Which means, technically, Neil is performing a temporal pincer movement within a temporal pincer movement, within an even larger years-long temporal pincer movement. Great Scott!
When the Protagonist Recruits Neil
Before his death, Neil also confirms that the Protagonist recruited him years ago in his past, and years from now in the Protagonist’s future. “We get up to some stuff,” Neil smiles. “You’re going to love it.”
However, what is intentionally fuzzy is exactly when the Protagonist recruits Neil. The conventional wisdom is that sometime in the distant future an older Protagonist creates the Tenet organization—which is stated elsewhere in the movie—and then recruits a young Neil (if that’s really his name) into the group. This seems entirely plausible and makes a certain amount of sense.
With that said, it’s worth keeping in mind that time travel is basically possible in this film only through the process of traveling for the same amount of time into the past as one does going into the future. Which means if you need to travel years into the past, you must spend years with your entropy reversed going backward.
While it’s possible Neil did this, Robert Pattinson is a relatively young man at the age of 34 (33 when Tenet was filmed). So the idea that he spent years, or maybe a decade, traveling backward seems a bit hard to swallow. But… what if the Protagonist’s future is in the past? It’s implied that Ives and the Protagonist could use inversion to hide their pieces of Algorithm further in the past, just as a future scientist did when she put those pieces in late-20th century nuclear programs.
It’s worth entertaining at least the idea that the Protagonist begins the Tenet program directly after the events of the film and then travels further back to hide his Algorithm. He could’ve recruited Neil years ago in both the character and our world’s literal past. It would make recruitment easier, as he’s already completed one half of the Pincer movement. The “halfway” point, as Neil calls it. But this interpretation is up to each viewer.
About That ‘Neil is Max’ Fan Theory
On the subject of viewer interpretations though, there is one doozy of a fan theory out there: Neil is Max, Kat and Sator’s much talked about, if little seen, son.
I am not entirely sure what this is based on other than folks liking to imagine there is a hidden mind-bending twist out there that only they can deduce. But what is the logic behind this? Kat has a posh English accent and Neil as a posh English accent, ergo they must be related? For some American viewers, I guess that’s enough. Although it sure gives an added satisfaction to the scene when the Protagonist saves Kat at the end of the movie by receiving her text message in the future that she’s being spied on and then traveling into the past to save her.
However, I’m going to call shenanigans on this theory based on Neil’s simple disinterest in Kat and quick acceptance that she’s an asset who’s become collateral damage when Sator shoots her with a reverse bullet earlier in the movie. When one of the Tenet organization’s men says she’s going to die, Neil even smirks, “Standard operating procedure,” lightly mocking the Protagonist’s CIA tactics.
Granted, if he’s Max he knows this isn’t how his mother dies and could therefore take comfort in the idea the Protagonist will eventually figure out how to save her. Maybe. But while Neil’s a cool customer, I don’t think even he could be so cool with his mother bleeding out before his eyes. So this theory doesn’t really hold water with me.Still, it’s kind of fun to think that if Max is Neil then there was a brief moment where FIVE Neils walked this Earth at the same time.