Tenet is not an easy movie to understand. There are timeline twists, back-stabs, and more than a few paradoxes. Some cinema-goers are also finding Christopher Nolan's latest blockbuster quite difficult to literally understand, with the sound mix being unashamedly brash. There's even one important scene where exposition is muffled by headsets.
As with everything Nolan does, there's a reason for that. These aren't audio issues, but a purposeful decision made by the director. Richard King – who acted as the sound designer and supervising sound editor on Dunkirk, Inception, The Dark Knight, and Interstellar – previously spoke about Nolan's approach to sound in a Reddit AMA.
"Chris is trying to create a visceral emotional experience for the audience, beyond merely an intellectual one," he wrote in 2018. "Like punk rock music, it's a full-body experience, and dialogue is only one facet of the sonic palette. He wants to grab the audience by the lapels and pull them toward the screen, and not allow the watching of his films to be a passive experience.
"If you can, my advice would be to let go of any preconceptions of what is appropriate and right and experience the film as it is, because a lot of hard intentional thought and work has gone into the mix."
Nolan has himself defended his previous movies when they have been accused of being hard of hearing. “There are particular moments in [Interstellar] where I decided to use dialogue as a sound effect, so sometimes it’s mixed slightly underneath the other sound effects or in the other sound effects to emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is,” Nolan told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014 following complaints the intergalactic adventure was difficult to understand.
“I don’t agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue,” he continued. “Clarity of story, clarity of emotions – I try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal – picture and sound. I’ve always loved films that approach sound in an impressionistic way and that is an unusual approach for a mainstream blockbuster, but I feel it’s the right approach for this experiential film.”
Whether you agree with Nolan's approach to using sound to immerse you into the experience is up for debate – as is the Tenet ending, which cinephiles have been happily debating ever since the movie reached cinemas.