I’ve been a fan of Christopher Nolan’s for some time. Ever since Batman Begins his films have always been some of the best I’ve seen. They’re all worth watching because there’s always some value in a Nolan film. He’s one of the few directors who can mesh big ideas with big action for mainstream appeal and success. But for me personally, after The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, I didn’t know how excited I should be for Dunkirk. It definitely intrigued me. He’s good at that. I just didn’t know what to expect from this film which seemed very much Nolan, but at the same time different from pretty much all his previous films. A Christopher Nolan World War II film? What can that be like?
Well, pretty amazing actually (which in hindsight isn’t so surprising). Also minor spoilers.
Why this film really took me off guard were for three reasons: the fact it has little dialogue (compared to his previous work), the wonderful directing that makes you feel as if you’re there, and the constant feeling of dread.
Anyone who’s seen a Nolan film knows they can be pretty dialogue heavy. There’s a lot of exposition for various reasons and sometimes his characters don’t really speak like how you might expect someone would. I love Alfred Pennyworth in The Dark Knight trilogy, but he does seem to have a speech for every occasion. Dunkirk, however, probably has the least amount of dialogue of any of his previous films by a decent margin. It leans really heavily on telling its story through visuals (imagine that) and Dunkirk‘s visual storytelling is excellent. The opening of the film almost has no dialogue. Everything is being expressed via characters’ expressions and actions. When a character is seen doing something it doesn’t need to be explained. You can piece it all together. You understand the situation each of the characters are in, so their motivation for their actions are easy to grasp without dialogue. This visual storytelling causes you to be actively engaged in the film. It pulls you in.
Nolan does a spectacular job of making you feel like you’re there with the characters. Some people are trapped as a ship capsizes and instead of watching from a distance you’re under it with them. Light fades as they are pulled beneath the water. They scream and gasp for air. You experience the moment with them. In another scene, the beach where so many of the soldiers are waiting to be rescued gets bombed. There aren’t any wide shots as the bombs are dropped. The camera sits there with one of the characters as one bomb after another drop nearing closer to him and therefore to you, the viewer. The shot doesn’t change. The movie doesn’t “cut” the viewer away to safety. You stay with these soldiers. There’s no safety for them and therefore none for us. When the Spitfire pilots are trying to take out enemy aircraft in a dogfight we’re in the cockpit with them. The viewer is constantly right along with the characters in the thick of it for the entirety of the movie.
Yes, there are other filmmakers who have and will continue to be able to pull off this kind of filmmaking, but what separates this movie from anything else I’ve seen is the sense of foreboding that doesn’t let up from the start of the movie to the end. A lot of movies have some form of levity or quiet moments to help break the tension. Give the characters and the audience a breather before things pick up again. Not Dunkirk. Hans Zimmer does the score for the movie and it constantly keeps things uneasy. There are definitely moments when no shots are being fired and characters just talk about the situation but they’re brief. It’s like the second one thing ends the buildup to the next thing begins. You just know the moment of peace can’t last, and it doesn’t. There isn’t a scene where characters sit around and talk about their girlfriends or lives back home. They don’t reminisce or make jokes because they can’t. There’s no time. The soldiers are trying to get off the beach before the enemy comes and wipes them out. The Spitfire pilots are engaged the entire time with enemy aircraft. Things just continue to build and build until the end.
This movie really got to me in a way I didn’t think it could. I haven’t seen what other people have been saying about the movie, so maybe I’m alone in how I feel about the movie. Maybe my viewing experience was different from the majority. All I know is I highly recommend anyone interested in seeing this movie to go out and do so. This is definitely a movie you want to see on a large screen, IMAX 70mm if possible. Now I have to patiently wait to see what Nolan does next.