'Dunkirk' Is a Compelling, Paralyzing, Nightmarish Vision of War
Christopher Nolan delivers his most cinematic work yet, assaulting the senses while examining courage and cowardice in wartime.
From the outset, Dunkirk assumes the form of a free-flowing, palpable representation of war rather than a traditional hero narrative rooted in poetic moralism. The terror, intimacy, and immediacy of war is the going concern, and while there are dimensional characters occupying the screen at all times, each with their own mode of survival and ethical compass, the threat of bloodshed and death is ceaseless and all-encompassing.
The film is divided into three, increasingly overlapping sections, with each story operating within different time frames (one lasts an hour, one a day, one a week). Each prong presents increasingly horrific scenarios for their respective protagonists, who either escape by the skin of their teeth or not at all. Whenever the stories interconnect, it’s an oddly exhilarating sensation, like a puzzle piece clicking into place. It’s a more subtle approach to temporally fractured storytelling than say Memento or Inception, but its effect is no less profound.
Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, "The Mole" Dunkirk
The first, week-long narrative story, called “The Mole” (the name for the rickety, narrow pier on Dunkirk beach where the British are cornered), follows a frantic young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) in a non-stop scramble to sneak his way onto any departing vessel at all. The soldiers on the beach are perpetually panicked due to the fact that they’re sitting ducks, wide open targets for German bombers and militiamen to open fire on at will, and it seems every boat they pile on to is doomed to be sunk in minutes.
Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, "The Sea", Dunkirk
The second time frame, titled “The Sea”, spends 24 hours on the boat of an optimistic middle-aged man on a mission (Mark Rylance), as he sails to Dunkirk to help ferry some of his desperate countrymen back home. He brings along his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and, as a fluke, Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan), who sneaks aboard at the last moment. It’s safe travels until they happen upon a shell-shocked Dunkirk survivor (Cillian Murphy, terrifically nuanced) who, understandably, refuses to return to the hellhole he’s just miraculously escaped.
Jack Lowden as Collins in Dunkirk (2017)
Nolan go-to Tom Hardy stars as a dogged fighter pilot in the third, hour-long time frame, “The Air”, which follows him as he engages in blistering dogfights to provide cover for both his fellow pilots and the vulnerable rescue boats, his fuel rapidly dwindling all the while.
Because the movie’s narrative propulsion is so forceful and uninterrupted, its sense of urgency so unrelenting, there is absolutely no time to take a break for expository rants or character heart-to-hearts. Those who found the drawn-out, pseudo-science lectures in Inception and Interstellar to be frustrating and dull will likely delight in Dunkirk’s brisk forward momentum and focus on cinematic storytelling, while others will bristle at the fact that we learn very little about the characters’ backstories and never get to see them share a laugh by firelight in an attempt to bond in spite of the tragic circumstances.
We actually do learn quite a bit about who the characters are, however. Few things are as soul-revealing as near-death experiences (of which these boys endure dozens), and to lean on an old cliché, actions speak louder than words. When Whitehead’s soldier finds another, suspiciously quiet young man (Aneurin Barnard) lacing his boots next to a downed, half-buried, possibly naked British comrade, he could have assumed the worst and suspected the stranger a spy. Instead, he sips from the soldier’s canteen and gives him the benefit of a doubt. Does he say much? No. Do we get to know who he is as a man? Yes, thoroughly.
Hardy, Rylance, Murphy, and Kenneth Branagh (playing an unblinking naval captain expediting the evacuation on the Mole) give rich performances that explore war psychology from all angles, but it’s the young, baby-faced actors who make the story such a high-stakes affair. Whitehead, Barnard, and Harry Styles (playing a fellow beach survivor less trusting of the tight-lipped soldier) bring the necessary raw emotion to their characters’ living-hell scenario, and Glynn-Carney and Keoghan exude a wide-eyed naivéte that makes Murphy’s unscrewed behavior all the more distressing.
Unlike the dizzying, disorienting action in some of Nolan’s previous films, Dunkirk is more finessed, conveying space, geography, and scope with clarity while also emphasizing the claustrophobia of the close-quarters sequences to make every moment of violence feel uncomfortably intimate and personal. The wide open spaces -- the cloudy skies pierced by the fighter jets; the frothy, greyish-brown beaches stained with blood and oil -- look staggering vast thanks to the IMAX format.
The score, by Hans Zimmer, is moody and supportive but never invasive and marries well with the sound design. The sound of gunfire in this movie will give you nightmares, bludgeoning like war drums pounded inches behind your head. While the enlarged imagery is enveloping on its own, the stellar sound design is what truly sells the immersion, swirling whizzing bullets and mangled metal around you until you feel like you might go mad.
Dunkirk is Nolan’s most directly cinematic of his works, knocking plot and melodrama down the totem pole in favor of furiously transportive images and sounds that elicit emotion in a more primal, instinctual way. Themes of courage and cowardice, greed, and compassion run throughout, but they’re largely explored wordlessly, unburdened by hand-holding lines of dialogue that over-explain what the audience already gathered from what they’ve just seen and heard.