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What’s up with Christopher Nolan’s mask obsession?

From The Dark Knight Rises to the new Tenet, he’s expressing a particular kind of control

john david washington with an oxygen mask on his face in tenet Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

There are a lot of strange things about going to see the new Christopher Nolan movie Tenet in the middle of a global pandemic, no matter how that dubious goal is accomplished. (In the interest of full disclosure: I rented a private auditorium at a multiplex, and wouldn’t recommend a traditional public movie screening at this time.) There’s the big stuff, of course: the mere act of watching a long-delayed movie that’s been equally hyped as a major blockbuster and a massive safety risk, or the attempt to become absorbed in a story about an impending global catastrophe besides the one we’re living through.

But there’s another nagging, unavoidable fact that becomes especially noticeable in a media landscape where even the newest releases don’t much resemble the current state of the world: This is the only big movie of the year where characters are repeatedly seen wearing masks, just like every reasonable member of society right now.

The masks in Tenet don’t resemble the typical face masks seen out on the streets, but the imagery is still striking. John David Washington’s unnamed protagonist, among others, must wear an oxygen mask after going through an “inversion” device that allows him to travel backward through time. The explanation, if I understand it correctly, is that the inversion process alters a person’s lungs, leaving them ill-equipped to breathe normal air in a backward-flowing time trip. Hence, an oxygen mask to keep them breathing right.

Tom Hardy as Bane and Christian Bale as Batman struggle in The Dark Knight Rises Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Based on this understanding, the masks are not used to paper over some kind of plot hole or inconsistency; they’re included to solve a problem that only exists because Nolan insists it does. No one in the history of time-travel movies has ever watched someone travel backward in time and asked, “But how is this affecting the cellular composition of their lungs?” This is very clearly a conscious, particular choice. Nolan didn’t need to have Washington wear a breathing mask for his story to make sense. He wanted to have Washington wear a mask, and he created his own magical plot logic to justify it.

As fascinating as it is that the biggest mid-pandemic movie insists on masking up major characters, it would be a stretch to call Nolan’s insistence on masks prescient, if only because he’s done it so often before. One of his later-career hallmarks as a director is a deep, abiding, and sometimes confounding love of covering his characters’ faces. At first, it seemed like it might be a specific vendetta against Tom Hardy’s face. Hardy wore an elaborate breathing device as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, which combined with the Tom Hardy special (that is, an accent of his own devising) to make the character so difficult to understand that his dialogue was redubbed. Nolan apparently so preferred Hardy’s eyes to his mouth that he cast him as a pilot in Dunkirk, making him spend most of his screen time in a flight mask, his mouth again obscured, along with some of his dialogue.

Hardy is nowhere to be found in Tenet, and yet the masks remain. Thinking about it more, masks may be Nolan’s second most prominent onscreen collaborator, below Michael Caine and above Cillian Murphy. There’s Batman, of course, and while the chunky space suits worn by Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in Interstellar aren’t exactly masks (and are needed for more clearly established rules about real-life lungs), they serve a similar function. They put a barrier between the actors’ faces and the audience, and they make human speech slightly more garbled and tricky to understand.

Matthew McConaughey in full astronaut gear in Interstellar Image: Paramount Pictures

That’s the related technical aspect of Tenet that’s garnered a lot of attention: Its muddy sound mix, which sounds precisely calibrated for some unknown sound system that no one has yet been able to access — possibly one that’s been inverted and is currently making its way back to us from the distant future. Though masks certainly help explain some of Tenet’s obscured dialogue, they don’t have to make characters harder to understand to the people watching the movie. (Strangely, within the movie, where masks could realistically hinder in-person communication, no one ever seems to mishear anyone else.) They’re a visual choice more than an auditory one, even if deciding whether Nolan places greater value on hiding faces or garbling speech is a chicken-and-egg conundrum.

This isn’t a condemnation of Nolan’s mask fixation. The internet has exacerbated the “I noticed this!” form of criticism, where a director’s visual tics (say, J.J. Abrams’ lens flares) are roasted simply for existing without clear and immediate story motivation. But the history of movies is full of visual tics that don’t all have to feed some master plan or central meaning to be unlocked. That said, there often is some kind of thematic connection in a given director’s visual hang-ups, and it’s tricky to pin down the resonance of Nolan’s masked figures. His recent mask usage tends to invert the Batman model of a masked face and an exposed mouth; was Bane intended as a more symmetrical opposition to Batman than the wild messiness of The Dark Knight’s Joker, whose makeup version of a mask is applied with intentional carelessness?

More broadly, Nolan’s movies are often about obsessive men trying to exert control over properties — space, memory, dreams, and most often, time — that seem impossible to fully tame. It’s a fitting obsession for Nolan, whose work has appeared highly controlled and adhering to a specific aesthetic even as it’s gotten bigger and crazier. Outfitting his characters with bulky masks could be a symbolic gesture for characters who are often stepping into environments where they don’t naturally belong — a reversed timestream, outer space, armed conflict — and need help to survive there. (In retrospect, it’s surprising that masks don’t figure more prominently into the dream-traveling mechanics of Inception.)

Tom Hardy in the cockpit of his fighter plane in Dunkirk Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Alongside the physical assistance, masks also put up barriers that impede direct communication, the kind of trade-off his characters are often forced to consider. There’s a metatextual aspect, too; partially covering his actors’ faces is a form of control for Nolan, subtracting some of their expressiveness and forcing them to rely more on visual context — and on his sound mix, even when that incurs greater strain on his audience. Like his characters, his actors almost always rise to the challenge, even if they feel like they’re being put through a wringer.

But for all of its aesthetic and thematic adherence to Nolan’s worldview, Tenet isn’t one of his most powerful films. In spite of the spousal-abuse subplot and the looming end of the world, it’s mostly Nolan’s version of a lark, a chance for him to make his own headspinning James Bond movie. (That degree to which it’s impossible to concisely summarize the film certainly explains why Nolan probably couldn’t make an actual James Bond movie.) The breathing masks still fit thematically; like most of the Nolan touchstones in the movie, they also start to feel more like an affectation, just one piece of an aesthetic that is the movie’s primary reason for being. Nolan’s directorial personality is much more buttoned up than, say, Brian De Palma’s. De Palma wears his aesthetic preferences on his sleeve, and revels in their movie-ness. But in its nerdy way, Tenet is the closest thing Nolan has made to a De Palma thriller. It’s all fetishes and Nolan Brand signifiers, and it’s as much about itself as it’s about anything loftier.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s almost endearing that Nolan’s brainy reputation still gives way to his fashion-shoot attachments to certain clunky demonstrations of style. For better or worse, these qualities make Tenet an elusive pandemic movie: a mask-heavy race to save the globe that nonetheless resists meaning in favor of Nolan playing his greatest hits. It’s an entertaining delight that might still leave audiences searching for something more. Maybe this movie is Nolan admitting that sometimes the mask matters more than what’s underneath it.