Throughout Christopher Nolan’s films, we’ve seen the consequences of his characters actions. In Memento, the course of one man’s life is changed because of a note he won’t recall writing on a Polaroid photo. The lead characters of The Prestige ruin their lives from acts of revenge over the death of a loved one and whether a certain knot was tied or wasn’t. What Nolan does in Dunkirk is simplify his storytelling to show the effects these soldiers choices have on themselves and others. By (somewhat) streamlining his usual complex storytelling, the writer/director balances three simple storylines and occasionally melding action-packed sequences into something even bigger. Dunkirk is a messy and gorgeous version of the British war film, for better and worse.
Dunkirk focuses on three different areas of the battle. The land storyline takes place over one week, the water takes place over one day, and the air happens over one hour. The land story features Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) on his journey to get off of the beach of Dunkirk. The water stars Mark Rylance and two teenagers rescuing the soldiers out of the water. The air, which features some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in years, follows Tom Hardy’s Farrier and Jack Lowden as Collins. Each of these cut between each other and eventually meld together with uneven results.
The way the narrative is structured implies that the way it’s framed is the most impactful way to present itself. That’s not to say there aren’t great moments when the stories do align. A lot of the action is framed so the next storyline will add to the tension of the former. Sadly, this film could probably do just telling the stories separately. Or at the very least, it doesn’t feel like that decision would be any worse. For a director that’s known for the different ways he can frame his narratives, Dunkirk never feels as well thought through conceptually as his previous films.
On to the good news, this features some of Nolan’s most breathtaking sequences he’s ever put to film. Along with the clock inspired score from Hans Zimmer, Dunkirk carefully uses tension to escalate even small moments. There’s also something to be said in the way Nolan uses the sense of scale to portray the consequence of the situation. With the use of the IMAX cameras, Nolan quite often frames the soldiers as the size of ants on a large scale before bringing the camera down for a smaller, more personal feel to the action. In Nolan’s version of war, it’s easy to see the people as smaller pawns on a big field, but put yourself in their shoes and it’s easy to understand why everything will seem like it can end the world.
There’s a comparison to be made with Terrence Malick’s 1998 war epic, The Thin Red Line. Among both films carry the same thread of beauty of life and tragedy of death. For any proof that Malick’s film may have any influence, just look at Nolan’s Top 10 Criterion films. There’s truth in both films testament to the value of life and our choices. Characters in either film have to live with the decisions they make. They may cost the lives of others and at the end of the day, a person has to decide whether they’re proud enough of what they’ve done to keep going. I believe both films arrive near the same conclusion.
Unlike The Thin Red Line, Dunkirk has no issues leaving you with very little dialogue. Not that much of the former film’s dialogue really meant to move much of the plot forward. Dunkirk manages to run just under two hours with very little of an overarching plot and thin characterization while still feeling compelling. The intensity and stakes of the situations portrayed put us in the character’s shoes more than any expository dialogue Nolan would have written ever could. It’s rather refreshing to watch a movie do “show, don’t tell” correctly, even though there wouldn’t be a lot to tell in the first place.
After my second viewing, I couldn’t help but notice that this may be the closest thing Nolan ever makes to a horror film. The way he uses water as an unrelenting force of destruction and terror along with the way he shoots the action not just for thrills, but to cement the impending doom that is upon these soldiers. Dunkirk is a film full of depth through the structure and revelations of the storytelling without becoming bogged down in exposition as he’s been accused of in the past. Time will tell where his latest fares in his filmography, but on initial viewings, it doesn’t disappoint.
- Director Christopher Nolan portrays Operation Dynamo with the proper amount of thrills and terror
- Acting across the board is very well done
- Hans Zimmer brings his A game yet again for a score that sets the tone from the moment you hear it
- The effect scale has on the film really opens up the themes of the film
- On first viewing, the structure of the film can feel unnecessary