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Tenet Review

September 21, 2020 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Tenet Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
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Tenet Review  

Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Written By: Christopher Nolan
Runtime: 150 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references, and brief strong language

John David Washington – Protagonist
Robert Pattinson – Neil
Elizabeth Debicki – Katherine “Kat” Barton
Kenneth Branagh – Andre Sator
Dimple Kapadia – Priya
Himesh Patel – Mahir
Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Ives
Michael Caine – Crosby
Fiona Dourif – Wheeler
Clémence Poésy – Barbara
Fay – Martin Donovan

The road to Christopher Nolan’s latest, mind-bending cinematic experience, Tenet, has been almost as twisted as the film itself. There’s much to appreciate in how Nolan utilizes his unique style for Tenet. Unfortunately, Nolan’s latest filmmaking opus is not able to meet its ambitions. What could have been a unique melding of a slick James Bond 007-style spy film and a complex sci-fi premise, ends up as a flawed, rickety ride.

Tenet starts with an undercover spook (John David Washington) getting made while trying to extract a fellow agent during a terrorist attack. Washington’s willingness to voluntarily sacrifice himself during torture is enough to bring him into the fold of a new highly clandestine spy unit. Inexplicably recruited by the shadowy Fay (Donovan), Washington’s spy is given a new mission: prevent a third world war and the eradication of life as we know it. Unfortunately, the center of this new Cold War is something more dangerous than a nuclear weapon. Someone in the future has unlocked the secrets of temporal inversion, causing objects from the future to hurtle backward through time, and Washington is literally the designated “Protagonist” to stop this catastrophe.

Tenet is one part lavish, stylish spy flick and the other part a mind-bending sci-fi scenario. Throughout the first half, the plot evolves in a fairly conventional way as Washington looks to ingratiate himself within the circle of Russian oligarch and would-be terrorist, Andre Sator (Branagh). It’s in the sci-fi elements involving the temporal inversion where Tenet loses its juice. As the film grows deeper into the messiness of inversion, it’s not long before the intricate and beautiful house of cards that Nolan built topples in a heap.

Many trademarks Nolan has become known for with his big-budget features are still on full display in Tenet. The film contains a high level of production value, verisimilitude, immaculate cinematography, and some visually outstanding action set pieces.

Most of the cast is very strong. John David Washington’s Protagonist has an interesting type of introverted charisma. At times, he seems borderline listless, but he’s also contemplative and committed to doing his job. His budding friendship with his newly assigned partner, Neil (Pattinson), is the narrative’s strongest relationship, one that refreshingly goes against the grain and eschews typical action movie machismo.

Other standout performers include Elizabeth Debicki as Kat, the long-suffering and unhappy wife of Sator, kept as an unwilling prisoner. She’s unwittingly brought into the Protagonist’s shell game as his key to getting closer to Sator. Debicki elevates what could have been a thankless stereotypical role as the female love interest with her fierce strength. She is not a wilting flower who has been beaten into submission, but she’s fighting to break free.

A few elements tragically harm Tenet. Nolan’s self-scripted plot lacks clarity. Ideas about the temporal inversion, central to the plot’s world-building, are introduced and tossed out later. There’s a lack of internal consistency concerning the rules that are set. There are too many mistakes to forgive that involve the inversion aspect, which is more heavily integrated into the film’s bloated second half.

The metatextuality of labeling John David Washington as “The Protagonist” is hammered way too much, especially when Dimple Kapadia’s Priya says something that amounts to, “You might be a protagonist, but you’re not *the* Protagonist.” Washington’s character could’ve been nicknamed “Cipher” and that would have been more subtle. These are the parts where Nolan’s script could have used some fresh rewrites or an unbiased set of eyes to jettison the more ham-handed exchanges.

Secondly, this is quite possibly the worst mixed and auditory presented film of Nolan’s career. Tenet is a dialogue-heavy script. When the dialogue sounds so “mumbly”, at times indecipherable, it makes for a frustrating viewing experience. The muffled sound mix fails to make Tenet more immersive. Instead, it causes maddening confusion; and that’s not only because of the scientific jargon the characters were speaking.

Tenet is a dialogue-heavy script. There is certainly value in focusing on a film’s visual storytelling and immersive sound design. However, something is off about the sound of Tenet. Rather than immersive, it sounds awkward. Even when there is not a great deal of action or cacophony going off onscreen, the dialogue sounds muted and uneven, causing a greater disconnect with the narrative as it progresses and grows more complex.

Dialogue is an important aspect of filmmaking as well, and Nolan missed the boat on its significance here. The film’s uneven sound presentation was likely intentional, but if he attempted to achieve a type of natural realism with the sound, it failed to coalesce. Tenet is either too low and muffled or too loud when the bombastic score lines up, so it’s rather unpleasant to listen to over two-and-a-half hours.

Ludwig Göransson’s score is loud, bombastic, sharp, jutting, and at times, overpowering. Those aspects are not necessarily bad, and they can even create a mutually beneficial cinematic experience. The problem is that when the score is so loud, the dialogue that’s delivered over the music and sound effects sounds unintelligible.

There is good reason to believe the obscured sound design and muffled dialogue in Tenet were intentional, artistic choices by Christopher Nolan and his longtime sound editor, Richard King. Since the film’s awkward sound mixing and editing were likely deliberate, artistic choices, the conclusion can be reached that Christopher Nolan is not content making a type of “dumb fun” popcorn movie. Nolan doesn’t want his audience to have their brains checked at the door. Nolan has crafted his own type of Brechtian cinema. He’s not letting his audience stay comfortable.

The overpowering sound design and muffled dialogue are likely ways to make sure the audience is dialed in and paying attention. Nolan refuses to let his audience settle in and enjoy the ride. Nolan wants the audience to pay strict attention to every minute detail. The tradeoff is that can make Tenet a very frustrating auditory experience.

Lastly, Kenneth Branagh is an underwhelming, stereotypical bad guy as Sator. A Cold War Era relic, Sator is little more than a snarling madman. Branagh hasn’t gotten any better at adopting a Russian affectation. Unfortunately, Nolan’s direction and Branagh’s performance are not able to successfully elevate what amounts to a two-bit megalomaniacal villain.

Tenet does create some exhilarating and impressive action set-pieces. The inversion visuals are unique and a sight to behold. They have not been displayed before in a motion picture on this scale. The plane heist sequence is another eye-opening moment because there is not some fake computer-generated veneer that’s overlying every action setpiece

The problem with the action in Tenet is that due to the clunky execution of the script and the poor sound mix, there’s a disconnect with much of the action. While some of it looks exceptional, there’s a lack of an emotional connection to the characters in action scenes.

Tenet has its strong points, but as a singular moviegoing experience, it’s probably Nolan’s least satisfying effort to date.

The final score: review Not So Good
The 411
Tenet has so many elements going for it, but Nolan failed to create an overall satisfying, compelling cinematic experience. A game cast and topnotch production values are unable to improve upon a clunky script and awkward execution. Tenet fails to reach its lofty ambitions. It also suffers from one of the worst sound mixes in a modern film at this level.