Lean and stark, tense and compelling, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is chalk full of his trademark style, while at the same time shows the director stretching his creative legs. It’s a different take on the war movie genre, and one well worth a viewing.
Movie Rating: (3.5 / 5)
The movie opens with a group of British soldiers walking down a street in the titular town, one that we would find oh so charming in a vacation ad today. Leaflets drift down like autumn leaves, and we eventually learn that these flyers show an image of the area surrounded by arrows and some words of warning for the Brits. I guess the Nazi military decided to spend time and resources on trolling the enemy instead of, y’know, bombing them? Whatever. Nazi’s like trolling, I guess. Anyway, while these six or seven soldiers take a moment to themselves — one tries to drink from a hose, another tries to relieve himself — they begin taking fire. As they flee all but one gets picked off.
The lone survivor makes his way to the beach in a sequence largely free of dialogue. Yet the mood and emotion have been conveyed: isolation, fear, desperation. It is here that we are introduced to our main three storylines. First, we’ve got “The Mole,” which is the beach and the men trying to get off of it. Second, is a civilian boat called “The Moonstone” that has been requisitioned by the Navy to aid in the evacuation, though the boat’s owner — Mr. Dawson — and his sons — decides to take it upon himself to help the trapped soldiers. Third, three spitfire airplanes try to keep the Nazi airforce from bombing the poor sods just trying to get home.
Each of these storylines is given a time: The Mole is given one week, the Moonstone is given one day, and the Spitfires are given one hour. Fans of Nolan’s work will quickly recognize the director’s love of non-linear storytelling structure, and though it’s a little confusing at first, the distinct time frames in which each storyline takes place soon begins to sharpen. Nolan’s mastery of this type of structure begins to shine through about a third of the way through the film as the visuals begin to echo each other and eventually converge into a tremendous climax of bone-deep dread. But, on the whole, it’s not his best work in this regard.
Dread is probably the best word to describe the tone of this film. It’s not an action movie like Saving Private Ryan, full of quick cuts and explosions. Instead, the pacing is slower. Nolan lets shots linger a lot longer than he normally does to add to the bone-chilling sense of, well, dread. The dogfights between the Spitfires and the enemy planes don’t contain any shots of planes whizzing past the frame with quick banks or stunning feats of aeronautical pizzazz. No, the audience is brought to the edge of their seat by one burning, drawn out question: will the pilot be able to shoot down the enemy plane before it bombs the ship with all the soldiers on it. On the times that he does, you’ll let out a breath you didn’t realize you were holding.
Nolan, who also wrote the screenplay for this movie, breaks from his usual conventions in another way: a distinct lack of dialogue. Nolan’s films are often dialogue-heavy, especially concerning exposition. And indeed there is a scene involving an exchange between British officers in which they explain the stakes to the audience. But there are also long stretches of dialogue-less scenes and sequences with the story largely being told through visuals. This is good. Movies are stories told through pictures, after all, and any information that can be conveyed visually should be, and dialogue should be as lean as possible. It’s nice to see Nolan pushing himself as a storyteller in this regard.
Where he falls short, however, is in the area of character. None of the characters are fleshed out, and that makes it hard to become invested in anyone’s survival. The most I can say about the main guy we’re following from the beach is that he’s a British soldier who wants to get off the beach. That’s it. That’s the extent of his characterization. We never even learn his name. We never get to know the characters enough to sympathize with them past their specific story goal, so there’s no real great sense of triumph when they accomplish anything. The characters on the Moonstone (a father and two sons) get the most development, but even that’s pretty minimal.
This was done on purpose, I think, as Nolan was treating each character as part of a collective, rather than as individuals. It was a portrait of a society as a whole trying to survive, not an individual. And this works to some degree, but if any of the characters died, I wouldn’t be all that hurt by it. In fact, I’m pretty sure we just lose track of a character. I have no idea if he lived or died, and didn’t realize this until the movie was over.
Overall, though, the movie was ambitious and well-executed. Nolan challenges himself enough to keep it from just seeming like a standard Christopher Nolan movie, and that keeps it fresh and engaging. On the other hand, this is far from being one of the best movies about WWII, and if you’ve grown a little fatigued with this particular subject matter, this probably isn’t the movie for you.
I do want to point out two things: one, Hans Zimmer continues to be one of the best movie score composers today; two, the movie weirdly went back and forth between having black bars at the top and bottom of my screen and taking up the entire thing (though maybe that’s just the disk I had).
Special Features Rating: (0 / 5)
There were no special features on this disk. I assume that the actual Blu-ray comes with multiple disks when you buy it and the special features are on a separate one. This may happen from time to time on my Redbox rentals, especially with big tentpole movies, which is something I had not considered when I started this series and its format. Oh well.