Review of “Tenet”

A CIA operative known only as the Protagonist (John David Washington) is given a case to prevent a third world war. Working with another agent, Neil (Robert Pattinson), he must infiltrate the operation of Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) by going through his art dealer wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). The war the agents are trying to prevent is one that won’t be fought with conventional or nuclear weapons; this war will be fought using the flow of time. Someone has figured out a way to control entropy, changing the normal order of cause and effect. If a government or terrorist group could observe the events of the future, they could counter any efforts to stop their plans. The past, present and future are at stake.

Trying to explain the story of “Tenet” is like teaching a squid how to write. It’s complicated, messy and I don’t think I have the intelligence to grasp it all. Writer and director Christopher Nolan has crafted a bizarre and labyrinthian story of technology, power and greed with the fate of the world in the balance. I won’t be surprised if audiences are deeply divided in their opinions on the film with some thinking it’s a masterpiece while other find it taxing and incoherent. Both will be correct. Much like cause and effect are reversed in the film, feelings about it will also travel in both directions. While struggled as I watched the movie and the alternating passage of time, sometimes occurring simultaneously, I felt the door to a level of understanding crack ever so slightly as the events played out. I happen to be one that thinks “Tenet” is brilliant.

That doesn’t mean it is flawless. The dialog can be dense when characters are discussing the finer points of entropy and how the rules of one person travelling in one direction while the rest of the world is moving in another. And perhaps is was the speaker set up in the theater, but I had a hard time understanding what characters were saying from scene to scene. Maybe it was the ambient background noise on the soundtrack mixed with the various accents, but some of the dialog was garbled and lost to me.

Otherwise, the movie is also unbearably loud. The action scenes with guns, explosions and car crashes left my ears ringing. I would have chocked that up to my individual theater, but I’ve seen other viewers post how near deafening the volume is. This appears to be a deliberate choice by Nolan and the studio to crank up the sound and beat the audience into aural submission. If you have especially sensitive hearing or suffer from hearing loss, you may want to bring ear protection just in case.

Have you ever had a TV show suggested to you and the suggester says, “It really gets good by episode 3,” or “The second season is where it takes off”? That’s kind of how “Tenet” is. Things won’t make much sense in the early scenes, and you’ll wonder if Nolan has let you down with a subpar effort. However, visuals you’ll find confounding will make more sense as you go through the story. By the end, scattered and random events early will finally become clear. Nolan has made a movie that is the epitome of the conspiracy theorist cork board with pictures, headlines and random pieces of paper covered in scribbles connected with push pins and red string.

While the story takes some time to make sense, the performances will hold your interest until your brain catches up. While the film is filled with characters, our four main players dominate the screen and ably so. John David Washington keeps his character’s emotions in check, just as a season CIA operative would. While he’s facing an unprecedented situation, Washington’s Protagonist rolls with it. While some may criticize his performance as dull, I found his ever in control operative to be a source of calm in a temporal storm.

Debicki, Pattinson and Branagh provide all the emotion for the film. Debicki’s Kat is a woman in a loveless marriage to a cold and cruel man holding their son as leverage over her. Her flares of anger and pain ring so true they caused me to wince. Pattinson provides a bit of comic relief as Neil. Allowed to speak with his British accent, Pattinson’s Neil is droll and a tiny bit condescending while also being a master of understatement. Neil is the Protagonists fixer, gofer and sounding board. His role is to give the CIA operative the tools and materials he needs to do the job. Providing a laugh along the way is a bonus. Branagh’s Sator is a fairly standard villain but provides flashes of the madness and cruelty that make him rise above. Branagh slinks through some scenes like a python approaching his prey. In other scenes he’s brash and big like a bull elephant charging through the African plains. While the role doesn’t provide much meat on the bone, Branagh strips it clean and makes a meal from the part.

“Tenet” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language. There are fights, shootings and crashes of various types throughout the film. Gore is kept to a minimum even during a scene of torture. A 747 is crashed into a building. A couple of people are shot at close range. A person is beaten to death with an unusual object. Foul language is scattered and mile except for one F-Bomb.

The action scenes in “Tenet” are unconventional but thrilling. Some of them happen in regular time while others are going backwards. Some scenes have some of the characters travelling in one direction while other in the same scene are going backwards. Nolan filmed the actors doing the scenes forward and backward so he could splice the two together as seamlessly as possible. For the most part it works, but sometimes people are clearly running backward and then had the film reversed and vice versa. Those moments are rare and don’t ruin what is otherwise a very good film. I would have liked a clearer understanding of what’s causing the reversal of time and would also have liked a better reason for why the bad guys wanted to fulfill their ultimate goal. That said, “Tenet” is a brain-breaking sci-fi/action/thriller that, if you’re comfortable heading to the theater, should be seen on the big screen. Just remember to wear your mask.

“Tenet” gets four stars out of five.

Release schedules are still thin so my return to reviewing may be erratic for the foreseeable future.

Listen to Comedy Tragedy Marriage, a podcast about life, love and entertainment, available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Review of “The Lighthouse”

Thomas Wake and Ephraim Winslow (Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson) are two men stationed at a remote lighthouse on a stormy, rocky island. Wake has a bum leg, so he can’t serve on ships anymore. Winslow is a young man looking for his purpose in life. Wake makes clear that, during their four-week assignment, he will take care of the light and orders Winslow to take care of all other tasks. These tasks include feeding coal into the boiler that blows the foghorn, refilling the oil that powers the light, and general household maintenance. The pair don’t get along and Winslow is hoping to get through the assignment and get paid. As their assignment is nearing an end, Winslow kills a seagull that has been tormenting him. Wake had earlier warned Winslow to not kill a seabird as they are the souls of dead seamen. The wind shifts and a storm begins, delaying the pair leaving the island.

I’ll admit. That plot synopsis for “The Lighthouse” doesn’t sound very interesting. I have intentionally left out some parts of the story as to not give away too much as the movie is best experienced with as little advance information as possible. To be honest, telling you more about the film wouldn’t help much as the feelings and emotions of the film can only be experienced by viewing. I don’t know exactly how I feel about the film from the same director of “The Witch,” but I’ll see if I can reach a conclusion by the end of this review.

The performances of Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson are amazing. There’s no hint of fear or resistance as the pair strips away all semblance of modernity and totally inhabit the time and lives of these two men. Defoe delivers a speech midway through the film that is an amazing bit of manic acting. Defoe’s Wake is berating Pattinson’s Winslow for being ungrateful and not liking Wake’s cooking. The speech is a curse, delivered unblinking and with the intensity of a laser. Defoe’s performance turns on a dime, switching from parental, to cruel, to insane, to friendly, to intimate. It is a wonder of acting.

Pattinson is an equal while being opposite of Defoe. Winslow just wants to get through his time and get paid, but Wake pushes him to talk, to drink alcohol (despite that being against regulations) and treats him more like a slave than an equal. Pattinson delivers a controlled performance, making his decent into madness all the more affecting. Winslow is the character you feel the most empathy with through most of the film. There comes a point where that begins to change as both Winslow and Wake are suffering from the stress of being stuck together on a small island, constantly bombarded with storms, with no escape. It wouldn’t surprise me if both are nominated for Oscars.

The film is a visually fascinating. The two most obvious things are the aspect ratio and that it’s in black and white. According to the film’s IMDb page, director Robert Eggers wanted the film to look similar to the earliest movies, including shooting it with old cameras and in the aspect ratio of the first films. The image is almost square. The regions of black on each side of the screen gives the film a feeling of claustrophobia and adds to the isolation of the characters.

Shooting “The Lighthouse” in black and white cements the film in the period. While it wouldn’t have been impossible to use color film, black and white provides authenticity and creates a starkness to the image amplifying the other worldliness of this story. Using color stock might have blunted the griminess and dread of this location. Watching a stormy sea of blue water would limit how depressing and angry the roiling ocean looked. The walls of their quarters stained a brownish yellow from pipe and cigarette smoke and oil lamps would give just a hint of happiness in an otherwise joyless existence. Black and white is almost a character in “The Lighthouse.”

“The Lighthouse” is rated R for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some language. There is a disturbing scene of Winslow killing a seagull (it was a rubber stand in but still troubling). There are a couple of scenes of Wake and Winslow fighting. We see a character’s head in a lobster trap as well as a character having his intestines picked at by seagulls. We see a woman’s breasts a couple of times, as well as both Wake and Winslow naked. There are a couple of scenes where a character masturbates but we don’t see his penis. There is a brief sex scene. There are a couple of farts heard. Foul language is scattered.

A card at the end of the credits says some of the dialog was taken from the writings of Herman Melville and quotes from the diaries of real lighthouse keepers from the period. Much like Eggers’ “The Witch” that took quotes from journals, diaries and court records from the time when the film was set, “The Lighthouse” is filled with words and phrases that are unknown to modern audiences. All this makes the film that much more authentic, tense and weird. Eggers’ films are just weird. The weird of “The Witch” didn’t work as well for me as it plodded and didn’t provide any scares. “The Lighthouse” masterfully creates a huge amount of tension as the build-up to the explosion of violence and madness the audience knows is coming builds like a pressure cooker. We’re never sure when it’s going to blow, and we even have moments of hope, but the inevitable destruction of these two characters is just a matter of time. This film will be polarizing as some won’t understand the point of the picture size, black and white, the language of the script and more. But if you’re looking for something Martin Scorsese would approve of; you should see this film.

“The Lighthouse” gets five stars.

A whopping five new films open this week and I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Terminator: Dark Fate—

Motherless Brooklyn—

Arctic Dogs—

Harriet—

Parasite—

Listen to Comedy Tragedy Marriage, a podcast about life, love and entertainment, available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and sent emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.