by Philip Price
“Dunkirk” is a horror movie. Make no mistake about it. You never see the villains. There is no physical trace of the German military anywhere in the film until one of the final frames. And yet, the presence of these antagonists looms over every scene. It is so inescapable in fact it is nearly suffocating. There is no relief from the situation at hand and much like a horror movie more steeped in that genre's conventions you know only one thing is certain: bad things will happen and people will die. That doesn't mean one can look past the horror by not getting as accustomed with the characters, the people, experiencing these situations though, but rather Christopher Nolan has slyly and only crafted his characters to the extent that one largely puts themselves in the shoes of these individuals. As with any good scary movie there is an allure to the uncertainty that could not necessarily be labeled as enjoyable, but is engaging nonetheless and that essentially describes the emotions one will likely feel throughout the entirety of “Dunkirk.” From the opening, breathtaking scene in which one of our young protagonists flees the gunfire of unseen enemy forces to moments in which civilians on their personal boats navigate the rough seas as they cross the channel in hopes of nothing more than saving a few lives-Nolan ratchets up the tension and holds it as tight as he possibly can for an hour and 45 minutes. Unlike most Nolan pictures, there is a brevity to “Dunkirk” that is key in sustaining the tension and keeping it at as intense a level as possible throughout, but like most Nolan films this is still very much an experience more than it is just another trip to the theater; it is immersive in a way that is difficult to put into words necessarily, but “Dunkirk” was always going to be something different as it sees one of the greatest filmmakers of our current generation crafting his version of a World War II film and to that extent this is a lean and intense piece of filmmaking that is rather exceptional. Lifting from the horror genre in terms of approach is only the beginning of what makes “Dunkirk” haunting, but much of what should do with the accomplishment the film turns out to be is the way in which each of the elements Nolan uses to craft his movie congeal in such a natural way. Whether it be the structure that is used to differentiate between the timing and perspective of the tales from the air, land, and sea or the pounding score from longtime Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer that makes up for dialogue in the film to the face of Kenneth Branagh in general. “Dunkirk” is a work in which it would seem there was nothing easy about creating what we see on the big screen, but that comes together in such an effortless fashion it feels as if there was no other way in which the movie might have ultimately turned out. In short, it's a reality where it seems the filmmaker's ambition has genuinely been met.
While this is no “Memento,” “Dunkirk” is told in a very specific and rather unique fashion as it is a movie that presents a well-rounded depiction of the events that occurred in May of 1940 when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and other Allied troops were evacuated from the French seaport of Dunkirk. This was prior to the U.S. joining the war which may or may not be some cause for the lack of resources in getting the nearly 400,000 stranded soldiers out from enemy territory, but it speaks to the overall tone of the war before and leading up to the events of Pearl Harbor over a year later on December 7, 1941 when the United States entered the war. To try and evacuate the beaches of Dunkirk though, Naval vessels and hundreds of civilian boats were used resulting in 7,669 men being evacuated on the first day, but a total of 338,226 soldiers having been rescued by the end of the eighth day. If that all sounds rather remarkable especially when considering much of those rescues were done through a hastily assembled fleet of over 800 boats that’s because it legitimately is and thus the reason the story is so deserving of its own cinematic account. With a scope that is very obviously immeasurable though, how does one even begin to attempt to paint a fully-realized picture of what it was like to be there on the ground, in the boats, or even in the air on those days? While most screenwriters might find their default to be that of creating a fictionalized love story that would see our protagonist fighting to stay alive so that he might make it back home to his beloved Nolan doesn’t go this way, but in fact rebels as hard as one probably could against such a trope.
Not only do we never see or hear anyone speak about their reasons for wanting to get back home (it’s more, “I just want to survive!”), but we aren’t even privy to knowing more about our handful of main characters than what their role has been in the war thus far much less any type of fleshed out backstory. Directing from a script solely written by his hand for the first time, Nolan has tackled these events by the land, sea, and air. We see many of the same events happening from these three different perspectives, but are never aware of when Nolan and his editors might switch from one to the other. We know where we are, of course, but we never exactly know when we are as we might see fighter pilot Collins (Jack Lowden) take his plane down in the middle of the ocean due to loss of fuel as he communicates with fellow spitfire pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) only to see a scene a few minutes later where we see Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian out on his own boat with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s good friend George (Barry Keoghan), who see one of their own planes plummeting towards the water and speed up to try and assist the pilot who turns out to be Collins despite the fact we had no prior knowledge these two storylines were even taking place in the same vicinity as one another. Further, Nolan also follows the harrowing actions of soldiers Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles) who are trapped on the beach itself and looking for any way out as well as Commander Bolton (Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) who are officers serving as the last line of defense of sorts as they conduct who goes where and are prepared to go down with their ship if necessary.
The thing about “Dunkirk” that is rather fascinating is the fact that one isn’t immediately in tune with just how striking an experience it is going to be. There is of course a level of expectation that can’t be ignored that comes along with each effort by a director like Nolan, but what is so fascinating is that those same expectations set one up for something akin to a three-hour epic chronicling several accounts from within this story of the evacuation of “Dunkirk” and that Nolan has more or less taken those expectations that he was certainly aware of as well and flipped them on their head to instead craft as intense an experience as possible and therefore is now as lean and stripped down as anything the filmmaker has produced since his feature debut nearly two decades ago. This is, of course, very intentional and done for the sake of the fact one can only keep an audience on a wire for a certain period before exhausting them completely and while Nolan doesn’t exactly test those limits he pushes them as close to the edge as he wants while leaving the viewer wanting more, needing more, even. And yet, as the credits roll there is certainly a satisfaction in the sense of what was the, objective of the film and how well it accomplished what it set out to do as opposed to what was expected of a Chris Nolan war film. To further exaggerate on what it is about this expectations versus reality scenario that makes the difference in the two a stark, but still satisfying one is that of the topic of dialogue and or the lack there of. There are, of course, moments in which exchanges in dialogue are necessary and present without feeling as if they’re being suppressed for the sake of keeping the talking to a minimum, but while much of these scenes take place between Branagh and D’Arcy or Rylance and the crew of his civilian boat that also includes Cillian Murphy as a stranded soldier that has seen things he seemingly won’t be able to shake any time soon there are others where things are said if not necessarily understood, but the point is made nonetheless. What is clear is the fact Nolan didn't want the emphasis to be on what was being said or even particular plot points, but more than ever he was interested in the feeling his performers and the way he captured a moment would elicit a certain response from the audience. The point was not for us to necessarily understand what is happening at any given moment (the soldiers certainly didn't), but rather for us to comprehend the fear and desperation that was undoubtedly palpable that day.
It speaks volumes that “Dunkirk” can revert expectations and yet still deliver on something audiences maybe didn't realize they wanted or would take them on such an immersive journey they didn't realize they might appreciate as much, but it is this kind of gut feeling that makes the film one of those experiences you can't shake and can't wait to see again. Much has been made of the fact Nolan, per his typical championing of celluloid and the biggest, most enthralling theater experience possible, shot “Dunkirk” on both IMAX cameras as well as on 70mm film. Unfortunately, I was unable to see the film in either of these formats, but this too marks a testament to the film in that one doesn't necessarily have to see it on the biggest screen possible, but simply seeing it in a theater at all renders an impression as great as the one I have described above. On that note, it is difficult to complain about a Nolan film as every aspect of what has been included has seemingly been done so with such specific intent it's hard to not at least appreciate what the filmmaker is doing, but this doesn't change that every now and then “Dunkirk” still suffers from being a little too distant for its own good. Distant in the way that while comprehending the point of Nolan's lack of characterization is to place ourselves in the consciousness of the ensemble and ask ourselves what we might have done were we involved in such circumstances, but even if this is case there might have been less than a handful of additional or extended scenes where were we to glimpse small examples, little truths detailing just how great the stress, pressure, and desperation of what it might have been like to be present on that day in history the film might have not only given us a visceral sense of what it was like to be there, but more of an emotional one as well. It is one thing to be strung out on tension, but another completely to recognize the humanity in what it depicted. While there are certainly examples of as much scattered throughout the film and built into the various narratives happening simultaneously they don't ever reach a point of transcending the subjective experience of it all to allow us to sympathize with the flesh and blood characters we're experiencing as much through. That said, this is a small complaint within a film that expertly crafts at least three individual narratives and builds the tension within each to a breaking point that is conveyed in ways not traditional to our conditioned movie-going minds. Rather, Nolan takes us on a visual journey in a relentless fashion that doesn't bother with theatrics, but more capitalizes on our own individual and personal emotions that we pull into the experience based on the images and sequence of events we see play out on screen. “Dunkirk” is an adventure, an event if you will, but above everything it is a war movie unlike you've ever seen before and to be able to create something wholly unique out of a genre so saturated should only reassure audiences further that Nolan is the real deal and that we're looking at a genuine Hall-of-Famer.