Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy
Love him or hate him, Christopher Nolan movies are events. The director has already built a near-legendary career off of completely original projects, and his three-film foray into franchise filmmaking essentially re-defined an entire genre. He’s tackled crime thrillers, superheroes, mysteries, and science fiction all from a uniquely cerebral standpoint that makes each of his proceeding films some of the most anticipated of their respective years.
If you ask me, 2014’s Interstellar is his best film to date. For some reason, this is an unpopular opinion. Movies like that don’t come around all too often. It was a bold, ambitious film that dared to show us what the great unknown just might be like. Even if certain story elements didn’t come together quite as smoothly as they should have in the film’s conclusion, I have yet to see many films since Interstellar that has left me in such awe and amazement.
Before I get off on a tangent as to why I think Interstellar is one of the best films of the decade, the only reason that I preface this review with that opinion is to make the point that my expectations for Dunkirk, his followup, were set incredibly high. Nolan has proven himself a master of genres, and I was thrilled to see what he could pull off with a war film, despite my growing fatigue with the genre.
Set in 1940 in the small seaside French town of Dunkirk, the film follows the rescue mission of thousands of Allied troops from the German forces that keep them stranded on the beach.
I’m not sure how I could have expected anything less from a filmmaker like Christopher Nolan. Dunkirk just might be the most unconventional war movie I’ve ever seen, which makes it a game-changer in a genre so overwrought with the same cliches and tropes present in nearly every movie that populates it.
There isn’t a scene in this movie where a band of young soldiers sit down, take a break from the chaos, and reminisce about the lives and families that they left behind at home for a moment of forced sentimentality. There isn’t an extended battle sequence filled with brutal, gut-wrenching violence to expose us to the horrors of war that every other movie in the genre has done ever since Saving Private Ryan.
In fact, film doesn’t spend any time in establishing characters or backstories. From the opening frame, we as an audience are trapped in this claustrophobic life-or-death situation right along with the Allied troops. There’s no time to relax or breathe. Instead, the movie ticks like a proverbial time bomb that could go off at any given second. Not a second goes to waste as the characters scramble for a way out of the corner they’re backed into.
The stakes are always riding high and the tension never lets up, and it’s a feat that Christopher Nolan swiftly accomplishes that proves he still has plenty left to show us. But what makes Dunkirk truly stand apart from other films in its genre is its story structure. This is far from your traditional three-act linear narrative.
The film focuses on three interwoven storylines, all of which take place over varying amounts of time. The first, titled “The Mole”, spends one week with a group of young Allied soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, constantly evading fire from unseen enemy forces. The second, “The Sea”, takes place over one day as a small-town fisherman (Mark Rylance), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney), and his friend (Barry Keoghan) sail to Dunkirk to evacuate the stranded troops. And the third, “The Air”, takes place over a single hour as a Royal Air Force pilot (Tom Hardy) protects the grounded soldiers from airstrikes, all while his fuel runs out at a rapid pace.
Each of these stories are inter-cut in such an unconventional way. The film’s timeline is scattered and is never once presented in true chronological order. One scene will take place over several minutes on the final day of the film’s story, before cutting back to events that took place days beforehand.
Despite them taking place over three different amounts of time, they serve to heighten the tension of one another, and all finish on staggering emotional highs. In a genre so oversaturated, Nolan has found a new way to making it feel new once again.
Hans Zimmer’s score also manages to subvert expectations. He and Nolan might as well share a joint career together, as they’ve collaborated on several films together, crafting some of the most memorable and impacting cinematic experiences of the past decade. Zimmer’s work on Interstellar remains one of my favorite scores for a film of all time.
Here, his score consists less of individual musical compositions, and instead, is more a single, extended drone that ticks like a timer set to go off at any second. It’s an unsettling and tense work that starts on scene one and doesn’t let up until it’s all said and done.
It’s because of Zimmer’s unique score and Nolan’s profoundly-distinct approach to this genre that makes Dunkirk so incredible. It doesn’t rely on shocking violence or an excess of brutality to set the stakes and maintain the intensity. This movie is all about playing with the audience’s expectations and showing them something truly different.
Despite it telling the story of a daring rescue during the world’s greatest war, this movie still manages to feel contained and small-scale. It expertly combines three intimate perspectives into one thrilling and inspiring experience. The sound design, practical effects, and beautiful cinematography shot on 70mm film make this just as visceral as any R-rated war flick you’ve seen – perhaps even more so.
The Verdict: Abandoning any and all trite cliches and tropes of the war genre that we’ve come to expect, Dunkirk is highly-unconventional, consistently-riveting, wholly-original, and yet another mesmerizing spectacle from Christopher Nolan. Its air-tight runtime and nonlinear narrative raises the tension from scene to scene and will leave your mind reeling long after the credits roll. It proves that big budget genre filmmaking needs Nolan more than ever, and here, he crafts one of the very best in the genre.