By John H. Foote
(**) Now in theatres
Let me state that the complaints about the sound mix of Tenet are absolutely true, the dialogue is often impossible to decipher. It is hard enough to figure out the wild narrative that requires your absolute attention, but when you cannot hear what many of the characters are saying? Seriously, one of the worst sound mixes I have ever experienced.
And the plot?
I like to think I am able to give myself over to a film, accept in every way the narrative. With Beloved (1998) I knew to get what I needed from the film I had to accept that ghosts exist, and the dead come back. Period. And I did. The film, Oprah Winfrey aside, is rather extraordinary.
Time and time again I tried with Tenet. I did, honestly, but at the end of the film I was so disappointed that my admiration for Christopher Nolan had slipped. Part of my dismay was the overbearing sounds of crashes, explosions and a pounding score that was just overwhelming, while the rest was trying to stay with the confusing, convoluted plot. He wrote the screenplay and one would think he might care about his dialogue, but apparently not. Nolan is known for being ambitious, for the puzzles with his films – Memento (2000), Interstellar (2014) – but this came dangerously close to absolute pretentious artistic masturbation. The action sequences are truly breathtaking, huge in their epic size and often unbelievable in their daring, but the relentless noise accompanying the scenes pulled me out of the film more than once.
Nolan has become one of this generation’s finest directors, delighting audiences and critics with his films. Memento (2000), Insomnia (2002), Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Interstellar (2014) and Dunkirk (2018) make up an impressive filmography for the 21st century. Though the DGA Awards have nominated him four times, his only Academy Award nomination for Best Director came for Dunkirk, his sprawling exploration of this event during WWII.
In Tenet the complicated narrative explores a theory that has become fact, a time travel weapon which permits objects to move back through time at the same speed as everything moves forward. Are you with me? Me neither. Mysterious objects appear in the sky when these time travel events are happening so a former CIA Agent, known only as The Protagonist and portrayed by John David Washington, is assigned to solve the mystery. Confident, moving with a bold swagger, the agent finds himself hot on the trail of Russian maniac Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who wants control of the Tenet to use as a weapon. Told “don’t try and understand it”, our agent gets the advice the audience gets too. No point, you will not the first time.
With our hero is the constant smirking Neil (Robert Pattinson) who’s there to help, the two making a forceful pair, while Kat (Elizabeth Dibecki), abused terrorized wife of Sator, agrees to help The Protagonist as well.
The best thing to do with a film like this is sit back and enjoy, don’t think about it, just enjoy the craftsmanship with which Nolan made the film. It is surprising the film is so convoluted it quickly becomes tiresome, especially that we cannot get close to the characters. The film hurtles along at tremendous speed, the dialogue often muffled by the sound and LOUD musical score, so truly we have no chance to get to know anyone. It is as basic as good guys versus the bad guys.
Washington continues to evolve as a major actor, having knocked critics out in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018), proves himself a solid action hero here, despite not often hearing what he is saying. He sounds more than ever like his father, two-time Oscar winner Denzel, but does not yet, have his father’s gifts. That said he is a movie star, period, and his name has already been batted around as the next Black Panther.
Kenneth Branagh might as well be portraying Sator with a huge sign on his head “Sick, degenerate Russian bad guy” as he is a comic book creation, wildly over the top. Had Christopher Walken portrayed the role, the mere lifting of an eyebrow would have spoken volumes instead of having Sator talk, because Branagh speaks each word with venom telegraphing “I am the villain.”
Most impressive is the ever-evolving Robert Pattinson as the smug agent Neil, who dives into this mess with our her. After his impressive work in Good Times (2018) and especially The Lighthouse (2019) in which he was brilliant, he handles being part of an ensemble in the same manner as Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception (2010).
The long limbed, lithe and gorgeous Elizabeth Dibecki was superb in Widows (2018) and though not given much to do here except look great, she is a solid presence.
Tenet is in the end a big fat Apocalyptic time travel thriller that should get movie goers back in theatres though I suspect they will exit, impressed, but not able to explain what they have just seen. Of Nolan’s films, this is the least of them, which makes Tenet a crushing disappointment.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.