On a grand scale, Christopher Nolan has tinkered with time and its experiential malleability to mine morality, regret, self-deception, and hope at the core of the everyman. With his latest, the World War II nightmare Dunkirk, he crafts a film where trauma is time’s displacing agent. While the director usually favors working your brain, Dunkirk is felt in the body.
To tell the tale of the week-long evacuation of 300,000 troops from the french shores, Nolan interweaves the battle on land, sea, and sky into one streamlined thread of formative daring. This provides an authentic experience of each individual branch of battle’s unique struggle while providing a unique way to present to the audience their disconnected efforts as one united front. The audience tries to keep on their toes much like the soldiers, but they’re never left in the dark. For as many films that purport to be all action sequence these days, Dunkirk is essentially that but with more than your amazement on its mind.
Dunkirk presents itself bloodlessly but still attuned to the terrors of battle. Here Nolan’s optics on war are a significant cut above his peers, with violence unglamorized or wallowed in like many contemporary war films that surround us. This film is about rescue, the struggling to preserve what remains of humanity when faced with degradation, not some antiquated ideas of heroism clutched with a vice of masculinity.
Despite the return of some of Nolan’s previous pitfalls – a muddled dialogue track, bare bones emotional insight – this film finds the maestro at his most responsive to his own limitations. The film is his leanest in over a decade, allowing for a film to be as relentless and rigorous as possible in its execution and impact. This brevity sacrifices nothing of his ambitions or creativity that he has explored at length with epic genre behemoths. Quite the contrary: with less room to breathe, Nolan finds thematic clarity in the succinctness of Dunkirk’s runtime that only bolsters its might. If not his best work, it still remains a massive creative leap forward for his methods.
And what structural control. Though the film dances somewhat close to repetitive in its episodic horrors, Nolan’s clarity of vision charts a steady path for cohesion between its overlapping narratives. Once it reveals its tricks, the film confidently takes a trusting audience along with it. Though Nolan’s blindspots for allowing characters to serve more than function resurface (and this subdued ensemble doesn’t add much there), the focus is kept squarely on how Dunkirk unfolds.
Part of the film’s rigorousness is due, as expected, to Nolan’s immaculately built production. With 70MM and IMAX lensing, he and Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema find a color palate beyond the tired muted sepia norm for WWII pictures that pulls from the richness of sea and sky for equal beauty and danger. Claustrophobia is the consistent visual mood even in the open air, and they upended us in some truly spatially disorienting images. But equally essential to the experience is Hans Zimmer’s varied and escalating score of scratchy metallics and thumping severity – his most immersive of his work with Nolan.
Dunkirk works as well as an experience and as a film, satisfying on both fronts in ways that the revered Nolan hasn’t always successfully achieved. Here we feel the director pushing himself creatively for the sake of the narrative instead of the medium, at once his most agile film and his least self-aware.