Trust in Nolan?
I’m a very reserved critic who rarely jumps into hyperbole (shut your damn mouth), but I do consider Christopher Nolan to be one of the best directors working today. His early films of Memento and The Prestige are especially beloved by me, I also adore The Dark Knight for giving me my favorite interpretations of comic book characters ever, and Inception proudly sits among my best films of all time period. And yet, I do get concerned when some of his ravenous fanbase hype a film up. I thought The Dark Knight Rises was okay at best, and Interstellar was so incredibly flawed that I consider it to be his weakest film. I’m putting this information up front to let you know where I stood before walking into Nolan’s latest, Dunkirk, especially as I saw the heaps of praise surrounding the film and the critiques deriding the director’s loyal fan base for getting too excited over nothing. While I do love Christopher Nolan’s films I have also pointed out his various weaknesses in the past as well, thus cementing myself as the premier authority on whether Dunkirk is great or not (see the aforementioned discussion on hyperbole). So what’s the final word? Don’t you skip to the end, I’ve got a lot to say about this little film.
Dunkirk utilizes a non-linear narrative to tell the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation following a disastrous military defeat experienced by the British and French at the hands of the Nazi Germans in 1940. We follow three separate timelines all edited together explaining the week, day and hour leading up to the retreat of 400,000 British soldiers from the seaside town of Dunkirk, France, all of whom were under the eye of Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). Each timeline follows a separate character dealing with a different perspective of the evacuation. We have Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as a young private on the ground trying to make it home anyway he can with his fellow soldiers Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and Alex (Harry Styles, relax fan girls of One Direction it’s a very minor supporting role). There’s also Tom Hardy as a Spitfire pilot covering the skies above the English Channel and Dunkirk. And finally we have Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, a regular citizen who has a private boat that’s been commandeered by the British Navy in connection with dozens of others to get the soldiers off of the Dunkirk beach. Not wanting to let anyone pilot his boat but himself, he volunteers himself to assist in the rescue party alongside his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his boat hand George (Barry Keoghan). This puts them on a collision course with a shell shocked soldier played by Cillian Murphy.
If you’re a Christopher Nolan fan, I can hear your shock that he used a non linear structure to tell his film; but unlike other films where directors use their favorite technique for no reason, Nolan uses the structure for a genuine purpose: to keep the suspense up. See, rather than tell each story in chronological order, each tale is displayed in order of rising tension. In other words, as the film progresses, the danger increases for each of our point-of-view characters, thus keeping you in knots as the movie proceeds forward. To my pleasant surprise, this order is far less complicated when you watch everything on screen, though I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a film that rewards multiple viewings in catching background details that come to the foreground in the closing minutes of the production and giving you more clarity as to where and when each of our characters were at different points of the story.
By the end of the film, I was left in an emotionally and mentally exhausted state that left me quite satisfied walking out (that’s what she said). See it is impressive to me that the build up of suspense had my eyes glued to the screen while my body contorted itself into coils as Nolan kept winding me up with the escalating danger, because I really didn’t get to know any of these characters. On one hand, that leaves very little fat on this movie (clocking in at Nolan’s shortest film outside of his 70-minute debut in Following); but on the other, character development is barely even there. Outside of seeing Mark Rylance’s calm and fatherly determination, you don’t get to experience any of the other main characters get a smidgen of personality. Hell, Tom Hardy has his face covered up for a larger portion of the film than he usually does; and your young lead in Whitehead has barely any lines, so our investment in these characters is very limited. So how the hell did I, Mr. Constantly Caring About Characters in Action Films, still get wrapped up in the moment of this film?
This is really where unique direction can make all the difference. Dunkirk excels in putting your right in the thick of battle while giving you an opportunity to experience the scale of said war. As we follow our three point-of-view characters, the camera moves between claustrophobic shots in cramped areas when our protagonists are holding their breath that they make it out of a particularly bad situation and the surrounding area so you’re able to see what they’re facing. Nolan also doesn’t erratically switch perspective with every time he sneezes, he instead waits until his audience is able to recognize what is happening on screen before moving on to a different angle. This has the effect of preventing disorientation and allowing you to recognize where your protagonists are at all times. Which is all the more impressive when you see he’s not dealing with a cramped space, but over a hundred miles of land, sea and air.
Instead of dialogue (especially ponderous monologues from the director’s last few movies) to convey characters’ emotions, Nolan relies more on his cast’s expressions to do the heavy lifting. Now this is considerably harder to pull off than relying on a solid script, but given how the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy and Wall-E fared, the task is not impossible. I must confess that the thespians of Dunkirk manage to hit that goal and then some. Whitehead, Styles and Barnard in particular were the ones that interested me the most, as each gave very subdued performances that demonstrated their characters’ shell-shocked demeanor as well their reckless abandon at getting out of Dunkirk whatever the cost. Cillian Murphy was another character portraying PTSD effectively as a soldier picked up at sea before realizing he’s on his way back to Dunkirk to get more people out and freaking the hell out. It was believable, it was hard to watch, and it genuinely affected me in a way that I didn’t expect.
The experienced veteran actors all did excellently in their own roles as well, and I now realize they were given significantly more dialogue than their younger counterparts. Branagh is always a treat to watch on screen, and his reactions to watching what his soldiers were going through was surprisingly moving. I’ve already praised Rylance’s patriarchal guidance before, but I did find it amusing that Tom Hardy was featured as what I like to call the “Fuck Yeah” character. In that every action he does is so amazingly bad ass, that it stirs inspiration from the other characters and the audience as well. And I’m not saying that because I have a huge man-crush on Tom Hardy…okay well not just because of that anyways.
Now I was already feeling watching these characters get put through the wringer, but that’s because the shots of explosions coming from bombs, torpedoes and aerial fire alerted me to how screwed all of these soldiers were. What impressed me was that I was feeling this way without watching a drop of blood on screen. Now I know some critics have faulted Dunkirk over this, especially after we just experienced Hacksaw Ridge giving another healthy reminder at how devastating and gory war can truly be; but I found the effects of war to be communicated effectively with what our characters were experiencing than actually witnessing any bloodshed. Once again, this is another advantage in having a solid cast express what they’re feeling effectively but it also demonstrates the fact I was kept in dread of every danger that befell our protagonists despite not witnessing truly horrific visions of war. Part of that was through the marvelous direction on display and partly because of the amazing score by Hans Zimmer. Relying on the tick-tocks of a pocket watch, the score reinforces the theme that time is running out for our protagonists and that every second counts whether they like it or not.
In the end, I do think Dunkirk will not be remembered as perhaps Christopher Nolan’s best film overall, but I do believe it will be his best directed film to date. Nolan had true mastery over every facet of this movie: cinematography, score, acting, story, scene and tension. The hour and 45 minutes I was watching this film in IMAX zoomed by as my hands were over my mouth covering my gritted teeth in a dark theater. For that reason alone, this film is worth the price of admission for a theater visit. I do consider other films released this year to be higher ranked thanks to their investment in developing characters…but Dunkirk is still pretty high up on my Best of 2017 so far due to everything I’ve been banging on about for over 1500 words. This is getting from me a very high…