Friday, January 19, 2018

Dunkirk


Directed by Christopher Nolan.
2017. Rated PG-13, 106 minutes.
Cast:
Kenneth Branagh
Mark Rylance
Cillian Murphy
Tom Hardy
Fionn Whitehead
Tom Glynn-Carney
Jack Lowden
Harry Styles
James D'Arcy

In the midst of World War II, about 400,000 Allied soldiers, British and French in this case, have literally been beaten back to the beach of Dunkirk by German forces. The Brits are hoping to load up as many ships as possible to get their men back to nearby England. However, they're sitting ducks with the Germans closing in on land and attacking the beach from the air and, eventually, the sea. We follow their effort to bring their troops safely home.

I'm a big fan of Saving Private Ryan because it forgoes a lot of exposition in favor of telling its story and creating emotion through action. With Dunkirk, director Christopher Nolan goes even further down that road. Instead of us being told a story, it feels like something that's happening all around us. The sound of an engine, yelling in the distance, a plane coming up over the horizon; all of these things cause us great consternation as if we were one of the desperate masses, ourselves. We hope like hell we make it on board something sailing back to England. If we do, our journey is far from over because we know there is a very good chance we won't make it. We see ships being sunk by the enemy and pray we are luckier than those poor saps. The tension is quite close to being unbearable.

Nolan creates this atmosphere by overworking his audio and visual departments. The sights alternate between ominous approaches and kinetic, destructive energy. We see something coming and immediately become apprehensive. When things are happening, we cower in fear of being hit. When they stop, we're instantly looking around for the next threat. It gives the film its immersive feel. We feel like there's no escape for the British, or for us. The camera itself uses distance to help create our hopelessness. There are lots of panoramic shots where we see an object in the distance and it is difficult to tell exactly what's coming or even what's attacking us after it's already here. We always wonder if it's 'one of ours,' but we're not usually sure until it's right on top of us and either firing at us or not. In most films, this is detrimental. Viewers generally need to be able to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. In this case, not knowing makes the situation that much more frightening. We can only assume that everything that breathes, sails, or flies is here to kill us until we can be 100% sure that it isn't. Tighter shots are used to convey the sheer terror in the hearts of the soldiers we're following. Every face is filled with dread. In place of happy moments, because there aren't many throughout this journey, we get moments of relief. Even these are underscored with doubt and often prove to be fleeting. This heightens our experience beyond passively watching a story unfold.


While the visuals are great, Dunkirk is even better from an audio standpoint. I'm generally not a guy who mentions the score of a movie, unless it really stands out in some way, either good or bad. In this case, it's really good. In fact, it's flat-out unnerving. Percussion instruments are played in such a manner they give the impression of someone, or something, approaching us with the intent of doing us harm. Strings are occasionally made to produce the type of elongated high pitch sounds that rub our nerves raw. Finally, the most tense moments are accompanied by a ticking clock. This thing makes us all sorts of anxious. By themselves, any of these things would likely be annoying. Within the context of the film, they give us exactly the feeling we need to be pulled into this movie. It sounds fairly similar to the score Nolan used for 2008's The Dark Knight, the score of which is tremendously underrated. That only makes sense since the legendary Hans Zimmer is responsible for both (though he worked with James Newton Howard on TDK). These aren't the most beautiful compositions, but that's not what they're here for. They're here to create an uneasy feeling and that's what they do.

Nolan has one final trick up his sleeve. Telling your story almost entirely through action is already a risk. The director doubles down on this by not telling that story in a completely linear fashion. It pays off. We leap back and forth through the timeline of events without warning that it's coming or notification that it's happened. We just suddenly find ourselves reliving a moment from a different perspective. This could potentially sink the whole ship, bad pun intended, but it doesn't. Within this is the fact that the Germans are not only faceless, but never really seen. All of this mimics the discombobulating effects of war. We're not always sure if we're coming or going, when or where we are. We only know we must find our way somewhere else.

Lest you go thinking there is no talking in Dunkirk, there most certainly is. However, this is kept to a bare minimum. We get to hear some plans relayed from time to time, some shouting as soldiers hustle back and forth trying to find some safe haven or get on board one ship or another. The only character that could be called verbose is Mr. Dawson, wonderfully played by Mark Rylance. He's a civilian with a small yacht who, like a number of other Brits, is trying to help out after a call for help went out to anyone with a boat. He's saddled with explaining things to his two sons, and in turn us viewers, and handles it beautifully. Kenneth Branagh is also solid as Commander Bolton. In my view, the standout performance is turned in by Cillian Murphy as an obviously shaken soldier. He's a guy who thought he had escaped Dunkirk beach only to find himself heading back to it unarmed, undermanned, and against his will. He behaves erratically and tries to seize control of his situation, just like us.

When Dunkirk was first released, critics, the blogosphere, and 'Film Twitter' all exploded with cries of people imploring everyone that they had to see this in IMAX. I get it. It's an amazing looking film. It's such a technically proficient movie that it begs to be watched on the biggest screen you can find. It goes without saying that the room with that screen should be filled with sounds coming from the best speakers possible. That said, I never made it to the IMAX and I was still totally absorbed in the film. This isn't just something I watched. It's something I was actively involved in. Rarely does a film so devoted to action manage to provoke so much emotion. But this is a rare film, indeed.


You may also enjoy reviews of other World War II movies

16 comments:

  1. I really liked thia film, and I agree with everything you said about it. This is definitely one of Nolan’s best works.

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    1. Yes, it's one of, if not his absolute best.

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  2. Great review, I wish it was Nolan winning all these Director awards for this, but I'll settle for a nomination.

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    1. No doubt, Nolan was really the star of this film.

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  3. Spoiler...this is my favorite movie of 2017; it's the only film I found to be an Oscar movie if that makes sense. Great review!

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    1. That does make sense. It's an awesome piece of work, for sure.

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  4. So glad you enjoyed it! i loved it so much I saw it twice in the cinemas. I find it odd how people say they weren't affected by the movie - I was very moved. i agree Rylance, Branagh and Murphy were great, also Hardy was just amazing given how he spent most of the movie in a mask. Just a wonderful and mind-blowing movie all around

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    1. Mind-blowing is right. I also find it odd people say this didn't affect them in some way. It's masterfully crafted to do precisely that.

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  5. Right now, this is my favorite film of 2017 as I just loved how Nolan uses time to tell the story and in three different parts of the narrative where it does make sense as it also plays into that uncertainty of war.

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    1. It may have vaulted to the top of my list, as well.

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  6. Glad you dug it. I went out of my way to see in on IMAX70mm film. It was, dare I say, TOO MUCH. I was absolutely overwhelmed. And the non-linear stuff didn't click. I had to go back to see it again to truly hang with it. And it is something to behold. You are so right about the sound. Very few filmmakers know how to immerse the viewer like Nolan.

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    1. Interesting to here that because as I was watching I wondered if it would've been too much on IMAX. It was more than enough on my TV. Glad someone agrees about the sound.

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  7. Great you've finally seen this - like you, I'm a huge fan of Saving Private Ryan and I think Dunkirk is as close a genetic cousin to that as Black Hawk Down was, telling story through action. Good call!

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    1. Yes, Black Hawk Down does indeed belong to the same family and is excellent, as well. Thanks for the reminder.

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  8. You'll never believe what soundtrack I'm listening to now. Great minds eh :) It's not music, it's art. Just incredible. The film itself is brilliant. I have a horrible feeling it won't do well at the Oscars, but that's their loss. What a very clever structure too. Great review :)

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    1. I have that same feeling. Thanks for reading!

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