Tenet is a soundtrack attached to an incoherent set of moving images. Ludwig Göransson’s punishing score (Trent Reznor-adjacent or derivative) overpowers every actor’s attempt to read their lines. The director’s decision to assemble the movie in this way is… a choice. A deliberate one. You can easily imagine the filmmaker Christopher Nolan fretting with the results in the editing room and concluding to blast Göransson over the entire movie.
Without the propulsive music driving each scene forward, the dialogue stops in mid-air and falls to the ground, utterly enervated. The words don’t develop meaning or our understanding of the characters. And, instead of connecting the scenes and plot together, the script actively thwarts narrative cohesion with each dithering, empty pronouncement. It could be a new collection of Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts without any sense of levity.
The experience of watching Tenet is akin to looking over your older brother’s shoulder while he’s playing a video game. He’s indifferent to your presence in the room and your level of engagement with the material on screen. Nolan, the older brother in this case, is addicted to mayhem and likes to blow things up. He’s made an ultraviolent Bond film with an overlay of glossy pretensions.
The Bond surrogate is a nameless man known as The Protagonist (John David Washington). Nolan only writes one distinguishing characteristic for him. On a rescue mission that opens the film and ends badly, The Protagonist swallows a suicide pill rather than ratting out his brothers-in-arms. Even though a burly, unshaven Russian is pulling his teeth out, one by one, we can see that he’s a loyal man. But his background is unimportant to the director. Nolan can’t be bothered to explain why he’s so trustworthy or what’s formed his moral compass.
The Protagonist goes on to scale walls, shoot mega-rifles and land Matrix-like punches on his antagonists’ jaws or balls. Early on, the director makes it clear that, like the rest of the ensemble, Washington isn’t playing a human being. He’s merely an avatar in a parallel universe who moves when Nolan’s joystick wills him to move. The organization The Protagonist works for reads as a loose connection of Masonic spies — but vaguely so. They’re a celluloid brotherhood that’s distantly related to those hatted, dimension-shifting fellows in The Adjustment Bureau (2011).
When The Protagonist wakes up from a coma, his handler Victor (Martin Donovan) informs him that his “suicide” was a test. Because he passed, Victor welcomes him to “the afterlife” — which is another way of saying he’s advanced to the next level in the game (bells ring, ding, ding, ding). Donovan’s wasted here in his only scene. He and Michael Caine make pointless cameos that pad the film out to an unendurable 150-minute running time. When you watch the film, you might be led to believe that most of the $200 million budget went to fund Nolan’s third and fourth summer homes.
Victor also lets The Protagonist know that his teeth were fixed while he was asleep. That kind of magic fix is a telling sign of what’s to come. In Nolan’s fictional world, he divorces the human body from the physiological limits of our own non-fictional reality. Physical pain and death are rendered meaningless by the director’s devotion to artifice. All the money spent on special effects amounts to seeing inanimate objects move backwards or forwards. It looks more sophisticated than reverse animation but the underwhelming effect on a viewer is essentially the same. We’ve seen this before.
Following the formula of Daniel Craig’s Bond films, The Protagonist is granted a complicated love interest and a world-smashing nemesis. In Tenet, they happen to be married and wealthier than God. Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) is held hostage by her Russian husband’s increasingly sour moods. As Andrei, Kenneth Branagh’s accent lands somewhere between Slovenia and Siberia. It implies that Andrei is a bad man. When he’s not happy, he wants everyone around him to feel his pain. Branagh skates gingerly across the thin ice of camp before Nolan’s plot forces him to drown in melodrama and megalomania.
Debicki is luckier with her role. She’s the only character designed to elicit our sympathy. Whether or not Kat deserves it is another story. The Protagonist also gets a BFF in Neil (Robert Pattinson). Neil’s magical powers are part of Tenet’s untenable mystery. When The Protagonist asks Neil to explain his abilities, Pattinson radiates a winning smile and dismisses the question by suggesting that he shouldn’t overthink it.
Two and a half hours of pseudo-philosophizing and the suggestion is that we don’t overthink it. Even if the audience wanted to analyze the stack of gauzy, overcomplicated ideas, it wouldn’t be possible in a movie theater. The director accelerates the line readings during scenes with dialogue then mercilessly trims them down, as if he were afraid that the words might actually register. Only the music hammers home a sense of cohesion. The director’s wisest decision is to turn the abrasive score up in order to obliterate his own sophistry.
Tenet is now playing at the Century Napa Valley. A San Francisco opening date is still pending.