Dunkirk (2017): Simple Efficiency In Chaos

Christopher Nolan is one of the most celebrated directors of the moment. After the highly beloved The Dark Knight, Nolan has become one of the few auteurs who is given carte blanche to do whatever they want. Following the disappointing if unfairly maligned Dark Knight Rises and the over convoluted space epic Interstellar, Nolan is going for something smaller scale with Dunkirk. Rather than depict an event with over conflated stakes that are less operatic or intergalactic and more confined. A beach in France with thousands of soldiers held up for 11 days who try at every turn to escape death by leaving. Or use death as a way out of this situation.

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There’s a lot of archetypes at the heart of Dunkirk. It’s not a movie based in incredibly dense character development. There’s a lot of visual shorthand used to give us moments with these characters in the middle of this horrific battle. Which is forgivable, given we’re in the middle of a grounded war zone. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is admittedly someone you could easily lose in a crowd, but Nolan’s focus on him and contrasted casting with Gibson (Damien Bonnard) makes for a solidly engaging backbone. Two desperate shoulders who meet under intense circumstances. The subtleties are there, if not especially noticeable. This can hurt some of the actors’ chances to show off nuances, mainly with Tom Hardy‘s pilot character. He’s more there for the sake of the dogfight. Which is wonderfully put together, but often cuts to Hardy being tactical rather than human.

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That story is in total contrast with Peter Dawson (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his father (Mark Rylance). Two civilians who have the tools to help and risk so much in doing so. The story of Dunkirk hinges on the kindness of strangers. Their sacrifice to help those in dire need. Rylance and Carney have a believable father-son chemistry, but with the clear lack of vocal communication. Enough communication to get that Carney knows the importance of this. All to show he fully cares so the presence of a shaken soldier (Cillian Murphy) is all the more emotionally taxing. Nolan’s integration of the PTSD this soldier is experiencing shows an adjustment that Carney has real trouble with and Rylance is more willing to accept. It shows a side of WWII that wasn’t a factor at the time, especially this early into the war.

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Christopher Nolan is the modern James Cameron. Well, James Cameron is the modern James Cameron, but Nolan is taking a lot from his playbook and is having a similar career trajectory. An auteur who is being given the massive budget to do whatever they want after a series of successful genre efforts. All I’m saying is, don’t be surprised if Christopher Nolan becomes a hermit hiding technology any time soon. Usually though, Nolan doesn’t tend to make great use of visual shorthand. He’s more a fan of long winded speeches and elaborate ways of conveying how characters feel. What they’re thinking about. How they’re thematically driven. Which was honestly becoming grating in his more recent films. Dunkirk on the other hand takes more of Cameron’s visual shorthand, though without the over inflated run time. At 106 minutes, Dunkirk is one of Nolan’s shortest and all the better for it. We all get what we need about the characters to service the individual scenes at hand. Effective, but efficient.

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Beyond that, Nolan also takes his sense of spectacle from the spirit of Cameron. Dunkirk is a pretty harrowing journey to go on, following three perspectives of the battle. It’s as if the opening horror show of Saving Private Ryan was an entire movie. Yet, there’s not an ounce of blood squirted. We see the carnage play out in bigger explosions and keep the gravity of the situation firmly in hand, but the gore isn’t the important factor. Every aspect of the filmmaking fills in the holes for that destruction. The harsh sound mixing of boats crashing. Heart pounding practical explosions. Even just simple shots of bodies floating in the grey murky water show the hopelessness of this battle.

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Dunkirk is such a refreshing move for Christopher Nolan. Without his usual crutches and a bit of restraint, Nolan has been able to create some iconic sequences, but hasn’t been able to match that up with a consistent story as of recent. Luckily, Dunkirk strips down the artifice and kicks its boots deep into the sand for an authentic cinematic account of this historic event. In many ways, it feels like the best version of an IMAX exclusive feature one can ever hope to have. That’s not an insult. It’s praise for something that’s a genuine cinematic experience. Nolan usually strives for this and – while not all the characters are consistently engaging – the story of this battle never misses a beat in terms of pure unadulterated tension.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Lost Helmets

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