Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is the war movie equivalent of a wind-up toy. With each turn, the knob gets tighter and tighter, with the small contraption taking one step closer to the edge of the table. It’s a visceral powerhouse, throwing us right in the middle of one of World War 2’s most dire battles and expecting us to keep up with each frantic breath of its desperate soldiers. This isn’t about politics, egos, or deliberation. For better or worse, this is kill or be killed cinema.
Nolan places us smack in the middle of battlefronts on land, air and sea. These vignettes non linearly intertwine as Nolan’s subjects frantically fight for their lives. Each segment has a unique brand of personal and visceral intensity. When we’re spending time with British infantry soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, and Aneurin Barnard), every corner of the frame could be another german soldier or bomber plane. These guys are gasping for air even on dry land and no moment of peace can be trusted. An intimate boat trip lead by Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson is a lot more confined, as he and his two sons have an increasingly tense interaction with Cillian Murphy’s rescued pilot. Rylance has the meatiest role by far, giving his stubbornly heroic Dawson a quiet kindness that keeps us concerned for him. Meanwhile, the dogfight sequences with Tom Hardy’s Farrier feel straight out of a thrill ride, with Nolan’s fantastic cinematography placing us right in the cockpit.
Do not be thrown off by the PG-13 rating. Dunkirk is an extremely tense and violent film. It just doesn’t resort to the pornagarphic brutality of a film like Hacksaw Ridge. It doesn’t need to. Nolan shows us the precise amount of brutality that we need to see, with much of it being left to the mind’s eye. He’s essentially placing us in the role of one of the soldiers, who wouldn’t see their comrades blown to bits in slow motion. It would all be a bit of a blur and Nolan keeps us disoriented while still showcasing some masterful cinematography. In keeping with this, Nolan never shows us the opposing German forces. They appear in the form of machines. Planes, U-Boats, Tanks. We’re seeing them strictly in the mechanical and non-human way that the British forces are.
Hans Zimmer’s exemplary score guides this tension along, acting like a second director. The entire film is mapped to a ticking clock and while it doesn’t quite proceed in meeter a la Baby Driver, it sometimes feels pretty close. This music gives even the moments of slight relief an air of uneasiness, as if a thread is about to snap and it could happen at any moment.
This is an undeniably masterfully crafted film, as per usual for Nolan. That said, his Achilles heal as a storyteller has always been really keying into the emotional plights of his characters and unfortunately, that’s especially true here. With the exception of the Rylance story, these characters are so clearly audience avatars that they’re never really given much personality. This is partially because of Nolan’s admirable decision to tell much of the story without dialogue. However, what dialogue is there often feels a little static, particularly when it comes to our soldiers on the ground. They feel more like props than people, which makes some of the tension that starts to arise among them in the third act fall a little flat.
Dunkirk is Nolan’s most finely crafted film since Inception. It’s lean and mean, trimming out all the fat and giving the audience a high-intensity IMAX thrill ride that will have people ducking from bomber planes in the isles. There’s an admirable restraint in his depiction of violence, without losing a spec of the intensity one would expect out of a war film. It does fall a little short when it has to deliver an emotional punch though, opting for an approach more in keeping with older war montage films like The Battle of Algiers than something like Saving Private Ryan. Hopefully, this will be the film that launches Nolan out of fan favorite status into being a true prestige (pun intended) filmmaker in the eyes of the industry.