Christopher Nolan’s films operate on a different level.
His work is a lexicon unlike any other.
Whether you consider him ground breaking, or pretentious and self indulgent, you are aware of the name. He’s entered the rarified air that few directors reach.
Names with weight. Men who have chartered their own path in an actor dominated, star studded industry.
Writing up a post on his movie is like uncapping a well. Its an active struggle to not be overwhelmed. To stay on course, and not break into tangents.
I will do my best not to digress.
Today we are only going to focus on one particular aspect of one particular Christopher Nolan movie; the dialogue.
It will provide some concrete examples of how this director likes to flavour his story.
We’re going to be looking at the dialogue and interactions between characters in Christopher Nolan’s latest film Tenet.
Why is it essential for the characters to communicate the way they do in a Nolan story?
Why does it work?
And, why does it often not?
It’s the key to all of Nolan’s dialogue.
Nolan’s tried and true method of storytelling is discussion that doesn’t lend insight into the characters themselves, but serves as the verbal representation of who the character is.
These anecdotes are delivered by someone who knows the character best. An Alfred Pennyworth, or another father figure.
Rather than the audience gleaning an understanding of who a character is based on their speech, their delivery, or their sentence structure, their actions, or their expression, they are regaled with a verbal description of the character.
Often, this description will be so extensive, it includes their motivations, and even their fatal flaws.
This flies in the face of a key tenet (had to) of cinema and story telling.
Show, don’t tell
We’re not witnessing the characters interacting with one another, we are witnessing the characters describe each other, and themselves, to each other.
That’s not how good writing works.
That isn’t to say these observations and descriptions aren’t insightful, just that their effect can be off-putting.
Part of the mystery and fun in guessing about the motivations and backstory of a particular character is completely lost, when you just have them telling each other exactly what is going on inside their heads, and discussing their motivations freely.
The characters come across as shallow, unfleshed, even robotic. Sparse peices of dialogue in Tenet don’t fall under this umbrella.
I’ll explain using a dinner scene.
Kat sits down for dinner with The Protagonist (I’ll call him Pro from now on. I know it’s lazy).
Pro needs to get to Kat’s husband, who he suspects is the villain.
Surprise, surprise. He is.
How does Pro figure this out?
Kat tells him.
So why is Kat telling Pro this information? What reason does she have for being married to an evil man?
Answer: He’s blackmailing her.
How does Pro figure this out?
Kat tells him.
So how does Pro intend to get to the bad guy? What methods will he use to find him?
It’s okay, don’t stress about it.
Kat tells him where he is.
You’re ruining the suspense of your film if every question you have is going to, literally, be answered.
All in one scene, in the span of a couple minutes, in dialogue.
This is best explained in the lunch scene, preceding the one described above.
It involves a British character by the name of Sir Micheal, played by Sir Michael Cain (because fuck it, am I right?)
Sir Michael tells Pro where he can find Kat.
He also includes a quick tidbit about Soviet history.
He asks Pro what he knows about small Russian cities isolated from the rest of society during the Soviet Union.
It just so happens that Pro knows a great deal about this particular subject.
They both launch into a back in forth, discussing and depicting the obscure scenario of Russian cities being sealed off from the rest of the country and the world.
It’s a lot of nuanced discourse, done rapidly.
And it is…
Just bizarre to watch.
What’re the odds they both happen to have extensive knowledge of this subject?
I felt like I was watching my WW2 prof go off on a tangent mid lecture. The immersion was ruined for me.
The scene makes the characters seem less like people and more like props for Nolan’s complex story.
That isn’t to say that the dialogue is totally emotionless. There’s charisma and charm interlaced with the extraneous exposition and plot armour.
Take the quip about Brooks Brothers for instance.
Sir Michael points out that Pro will need to step up his attire, if he plans on rubbing elbows with crowd he’s headed for.
He offers to find him a tailor.
Recovering, Pro declines, smoothly replying “You Brits don’t have the monopoly on snobbery you know”
To which, Sir Michael laughs, and responds “No, not a monopoly. More of a controlling interest”.
That’s good banter. It makes the scene come alive. Hell, it makes the characters seem alive for the first time since they sat down.
And it doesn’t have to be just for shits and giggles either. You can still have energetic, character driven dialogue while being direct and to the point.
This scene is from The Dark Knight. It demonstrates how brutal honesty can lend benefits to dialogue.
The Boat Scene
Pro, Andre (the bad guy) and Kat hop on a state of the art catamaran and have a discussion about weaponized plutonium while foiling at upwards of 40 knots.
Kat throws Andre overboard, nearly killing him. Pro jumps in and saves him.
They return to Andre’s yacht to continue their discussion about nuclear weapons over a glass of vodka.
I’m not even going to analyze this scene. I just couldn’t leave out the fact that a discussion about weapons grade plutonium occurred while flying over the surface of the ocean on a next-gen sail boat.
That’s how Nolan this movie is.
It’s ubsurd. And we’re not even going into the the time travel aspect of it.
I love Nolan
The man is sacred in cinema.
Yes, I didn’t like this movie.
Yes, I don’t like parts of his other movies.
Yes his dialogue is stiff, rigid and, at times offly boring. And yes, this directly affects the appeal of his characters.
But by God, if you don’t think the man can write, remember these words.
I’m sorry. Totally breaking the thread here, but I just have to say…
I can’t believe I got through this post and only referenced The Dark Knight 3 times.
What a feat of will power.
Don’t get it twisted.
Nolan is the man.
This just wasn’t his best moment.