“If we go there we’ll die.”
Christopher Nolan seems to be a director and a storyteller obsessed by the passage, the overall meaning, and the possibility of exploring different pieces of time. Every single one of his films embrace the construct of the clock. There’s the reverse storytelling of Memento, the folding and diving dreamscapes of Inception (a movie inspired by the very process of movie making), and the taxing effect it takes on us in the unabashedly human and experimental Interstellar. To appreciate Nolan’s latest, one must know how to appreciate the man himself, a filmmaker who’s overly ambitious at his worst and breathtaking at his best. If you look back this way, Memento is his introduction to the cult crowd, Inception is the literally puzzling and hypnotic middle welcoming worldwide attention, and his previous feature Interstellar is the overwhelming emotional third act we’ve been waiting for all along. As the sum of these previous endeavors and the culmination of his Batman creativity, Dunkirk is an almost unbearably intense film booming with sound and with heart, and for that matter is one of the best films ever made about the costs of war.
That last sentence is carefully constructed on purpose. Dunkirk isn’t necessarily or naturally categorized as a “war film.” There’s almost no blood, no guts, no German soldier faces ever take control of the screen from the Allied troops. So while Dunkirk occurs in wartime and involves countless casualties, it’s more of a film about our very primitive drive to survive and the toll it takes when we sacrifice such inherent thinking in order to prioritize others. From this perspective and through its layered timeline, Dunkirk might just be the most ambitious art film of all time. It’s not the kind of movie you’ll sit down and casually re-watch on TBS while recovering from a Sunday morning hangover. This can’t be cut with commercial bathroom breaks. Too few pictures actually demand to be seen in theaters anymore. As such, Nolan clings to this ideology, time after time delivering what truly is a unique theater experience. Dunkirk will be called bold by those who love cinema and balderdash by those who love summer blockbusters and probably blah by those in the middle. Any which way you have it, Nolan is able to make you feel and indulge conversation once the credits roll in ways almost no other modern director is capable of. Such provocation takes enviable skill.
Dunkirk’s opening scene is a beauty to behold. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) strolls the namesake streets with similarly uniformed soldiers. He catches a piece of propaganda raining from the heavens, encouraging surrender to survive, a big “YOU” surrounded by arrows from every encroaching angle. And then come the bullets. Whistling sad death tunes, whizzing by our ears in unison, a swan song dropping bodies like flies. Tommy, a young kid who should be running from a big schoolyard bully instead of assault weapons, just barely escapes to the beach. There we see things not directly from his perspective but as his fellow newcomer. Thousands upon thousands of troops waiting to be rescued, or as the opening credits so appropriately call it, “hoping for deliverance.” Deliverance to or from what, exactly? For some, a home so close they can see it and almost taste it. For others, death on their own terms. And for outsiders, a disregard for either, falling into line and obeying orders. Dunkirk might kill these men with kindness (so many simply vanish from the screen), but we constantly hear their cries, their sheer horror, and their own inward ambivalence through vacant eyes. Its distress signal might be silent but is always violently waving throughout.
Comprehending the picture’s structure is less important than understanding its intended effect. Told as a triptych tale with three different perspectives eventually blending and coalescing as one, Dunkirk turns the typical war conventions on end. There are no big briefings between those in command and those in battle, no visible enemies, no attacks plotted over a map spread across a table. Here the events happen organically – almost to the point that we feel as if we’re in the crosshairs of danger – as each chapter acts less on devised plot and more on survival instinct. Our time on The Mole (a big harbor structure of sorts) develops over a week. The day long sea chapter finds Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) sailing himself, his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan) towards Dunkirk to help evacuate British soldiers. In the film’s most thrilling and frenetic turn, we follow one hour with pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) as they attempt to shoot down enemy spitfires in sparse scenes which depict flying in ways previously unknown, capturing the grueling chase as frantically as it’s ever been shot.
Dunkirk closes our eyes and challenges us to place ourselves within its own carefully designed nightmare. For once you don’t want to be woken from such a hell; you want to welcome and to experience all of its shades of empathy and to strap yourself in the boots of its brave. In contrast with America’s constant winning ideals, Dunkirk focuses more on evoking the disillusioned and disenfranchised outlooks of those forced to retreat, primarily through Private Alex (Harry Styles, and yes, the guy can act or at least be directed very well). Regardless of what he’s told or what he sees – he and his fellow soldiers are nevertheless celebrated in the end – Alex still views retreat as a monumental failure. Expanding upon this desperation to succeed, Nolan draws a phenomenal performance from Rylance, and despite covering Hardy’s mouth once again (who after playing Bane and starring in Locke solidifies himself as one of the businesses’ best set of eyes), the actor can still elicit real moments of panic and terror and inclination. I typically reserve the word “movie” for the masses, and by that term would call Interstellar his most gut-wrenching, epic endeavor to date. But as far as “film” goes – challenging the hallmarks of the loaded reel experience – Dunkirk is the picture Christopher Nolan has built his entire filmography towards, painting a gallery level piece as massively as possible. This is the work of a master.
I fear that many will feel as plagued by the bombarding sound as I initially was. From nearly its first frame, Dunkirk latches onto Hans Zimmer’s booming score as its primary life source. Other movies have taken on the look of war better, yet none have sounded quite this intimate. Some might see that as reliant; I see it as the primary vocals in a picture more suited to silence, the images doing their job while the background vocals only enhance what is already residing supreme. Shot almost entirely by the loud IMAX cameras, most of the dialogue is inaudible (which makes me anticipate watching it with subtitles even more). No matter, though. From fraught beginning to its expressionist ending, Dunkirk is a respectful and truthful labor of love, more humble in its approach than you’d except, keen to observation and available to endure suffering. Compared to Inception, we know when this top is going to fall, and the real magic is not in knowing when it will finally topple, but when it’ll just start to wobble and roll out of its breathtaking cycle. You can’t possibly bleed for a movie this tight, this finessed and expertly edited, nor can you sterilize all of the wounds it inflicts. All you can do is try to live it, and here, live it to the absolute extreme. Dunkirk is revolutionary in its stubborn defiance and treatment of what separates this specific cinematic experience from reality and history. No invitation is needed. Open your wallet and go see it on the biggest screen nearby. Feel it. Remember it. Honor its commemoration. Nolan has awoken the power of film with his own Lazarus effect. I was left dumbfounded.
“Survival’s not fair.”
Rating: 5 out of 5