“If we go there we’ll die.”
Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker who excels at long, tense set-pieces. There’s the chaotic truck chase from The Dark Knight; the revolving hallway fight from Inception; the opening plane crash from The Dark Knight Returns; the docking sequence from Interstellar. Now, with Dunkirk, Nolan has crafted what amounts to a feature-length version of one of these scenes — a pulse-quickening, unrelenting 107 minute experience that grabs hold and refuses to let go until the credits roll.
Set during the World War II Dunkirk evacuation, where Allied soldiers waited to be evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, France as enemy planes dive-bombed them, Dunkirk follows three distinct narratives: one on the land, taking place over a period of a week; one on the sea, taking place over the period of one day; and one in the air, taking place over a period of one hour.
On the land, young British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) desperately wants to get home, going so far as to pose as a medic evacuating an injured man in order to hitch a ride on a hospital ship. Yet at every turn, something stalls Tommy’s journey, usually in the form of terrifying dive-bombings or torpedo strikes. Along the way he befriends the silent private Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and the more outgoing Alex (Harry Styles), and the three proceed to end up in one life-threatening situation after another.
On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) has been enlisted by the army to use his personal boat to help evacuate Dunkirk, and so he sails off with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and mate George (Barry Keoghan) in tow. As they get closer to Dunkirk they pick up a shipwrecked solider (Cillian Murphy) suffering from shell-shock who wants nothing more than to get away from Dunkirk.
In the air, two Royal Air Force pilots (Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy) navigate above the sea, engaging in dogfights with enemy planes and dealing with faulty instruments.
Little by little, Nolan slowly knits these storylines together, sometimes working backwards after arriving at one point to show us how certain characters ended up there. It’s an ingenious narrative construction, because at first the audience doesn’t realize that these events may be taking place at different points in time. This narrative flourish aside, Dunkirk may be Nolan’s most straightforward film, completely self-contained and free of the extraneous fat that sometimes bogs down his other films.
That’s not to say Dunkirk isn’t ambitious. Indeed, the film is filled with stunning, meticulously constructed moments, each more tense than the last. A ship sinking after a torpedo strike is one of the most heart-quickening things Nolan has ever captured on film, and a moment late in the film where a British Commander played by Kenneth Branagh looks up at the sky after he hears the sounds of a dive-bombing enemy plane will have the hairs on the back of your arms standing up. This imagery is perfectly accented by a masterful sound design and and even more masterful score courtesy of Han Zimmer, complete with a ticking clock motif to make you extra anxious.
Yet as remarkable as the sound design of the film is, it also suffers from some poorly mixed dialogue. A large chunk of what the characters are saying is at times almost inaudible, coming across as little more than mumble. Perhaps this is intentional, because there is very little dialogue in the film to speak of. Nolan instead relies on long stretches of wordlessness as the characters scramble to and fro while the landscape explodes around them.
The cast handles their strenuous duties well. Whitehead is a likable lead and Styles exhibits charisma that comes through even beneath a bunch of muck and grime, and Hardy is his usual strong, silent self, getting some of the film’s best moments while doing little more than furrowing his brow and flipping a few buttons on his dashboard. But the true standout is Rylance, who exudes stoic compassion. One gets the sense that an entire movie could be told about this character alone, such is the commanding power of Rylance’s performance.
At under two hours, this is one of Nolan’s shortest movies to date, and the brisk run time seems to have freed him a little. No longer working with his typical hyper-complex narrative, the filmmaker is able to let Dunkirk breathe, and it breathes beautifully. Here is a filmmaker at the top of his game, exhibiting magnificent moments of tension and action while also letting in rousing emotional moments here and there. This may very well be Christopher Nolan’s best movie, and it’s certainly one of the best movies of the year.