Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
It all starts with a word: Tenet. Once he hears it, The Protagonist (John David Washington) sets off on a globetrotting mission to learn more about time inversion and use it to stop a potential worldwide catastrophe.
Writer/Director Christopher Nolan has always had a fascination with time; how it can be manipulated, perverted and completely repurposed as his narrative sees fit. With the exception of his Dark Knight Trilogy, the rest of his output over the past twenty years has involved time as a crucial element in some capacity. Just as often as he plays with time, Nolan creates films that transcend the cinematic medium. He does not so much make movies as he creates singularly unique experiences that exist on a different playing field away from everyone else. This may sound like the rantings of a Nolan fanboy, but it is true — there is no one on the world stage making blockbuster cinema right now that can even dream of competing with Nolan. Full stop.
Tenet, for all the controversy and anticipation it has created in its wake over the past year, is yet another one-of-a-kind experience that demands to be watched, re-watched and analyzed. To say it meets the hype is a disservice to what a rock solid piece of cinematic wonder Nolan has put together. The elevated James Bond-style fantasy he has created is unlike anything you could have imagined. Every single technical element is firing on all cylinders, from the breathless look and feel Hoyte Van Hoytema brings to every frame, to Nathan Crowley’s impeccable and lavish Production Design, to Jeffrey Kurland’s exquisite Costuming, to Oscar-winner Ludwig Göransson’s brilliant and hypnotic Score. The Stunt work is magnificent, the Special Effects are used sparingly in a way that complements and enhances the Film around them, and the Sound Design is simply unreal. A lewd Letterboxd review put great emphasis on the pounding bass for good reason: it is dialed up well past eleven and practically explodes out of the speakers at all times.
I sing all of these praises, but they would be meaningless if not for Jennifer Lame’s spectacular Editing. The amount of precision and mastery on display is next-level, integrating and remixing elements in ways we have rarely if ever seen before. I watched wide-eyed for much of the Film’s running time, consistently left somewhere between awestruck and dumbfounded trying to comprehend how these scenes came together so beautifully. Lame’s extraordinary work alternates frequently between the seamless and the chaotic, with some moments cut so quickly and refined that it must be seen to be believed.
A star on the rise, Washington brings an intensity and focused energy that propels him from beginning to end (and yes, he is only ever referred to as The Protagonist). I mentioned James Bond earlier, and he certainly embodies some of those characteristics. But Washington brings real gravitas to the role, commanding the screen and doing more than just embodying an archetype. Robert Pattinson is terrific in his enigmatic supporting role, very much acting as Washington’s equal in nearly every way. It was strange not seeing him as a Lead, but he shines brightly and even gets to inject more humour into the mix than expected. Kenneth Branagh is diabolically evil and downright menacing as the Film’s villain. He has a blast chewing up the scenery, and is able to invoke genuine terror with just a few words. Some have written off Elizabeth Debicki as a “damsel in distress”, but she more than holds her own in the Film, overcoming the limitations of the Script and gaining more agency than most of Nolan’s female characters.
Tenet is not perfect though. Beyond the aforementioned issues of writing for women (though these female characters are his strongest yet), Nolan spends a bit too much time going out of his way to over-explain time inversion gibberish and paradoxes – so much so that one character’s last lines explain away a possible time paradox. The Film can be slightly confusing I will admit, but it is all nonsense that scholars and YouTubers are going to spend too much time dissecting anyway. Why not waste less time telling and spend more time showing? Even more egregious is how – at least at the IMAX screening I attended – the Music and Sound have a bad habit of drowning out the dialogue. It made for a handful of frustrating moments that I would have forgiven, if not for the fact that he has had this complaint levied against him before. The dialogue is far from Shakespearean, but he deemed it necessary to the Film. So why not let us hear it all?
Tenet is an incredible Film and a magnificent piece of blockbuster cinema. The phenomenal technical elements more than make up for its few shortcomings. It will no doubt confuse some viewers, but will reward others. It is a must-see Film that demands to be seen wherever and whenever you feel most safe. It is so rare for a Filmmaker to be able to continually make such unique and distinctive works, but Tenet proves that Nolan is really in a class all of his own. And that Travis Scott End Credit track is one hell of a banger.
Warner Bros. Pictures Canada release TENET in theatres starting Wednesday August 26, 2020.
*Please ensure you exercise caution in observing COVID-19 protocols if seeing this in-theatre*