DUNKIRK is one dead wife away from being the Nolaniest movie that Nolan ever Nolaned. It’s very much what his filmography has been leading up to, in both theme and form, and he’s pretty much perfected it. It is the pinnacle of all he has done – good and bad – and it is technically stunning. As craft, it’s unimpeachable. And yet I spent a lot of the movie not really caring about what I was watching. I was involved – the editing and sound design and camerawork bring you into the moment, and there was tension and there was excitement and there was dread – but I didn’t CARE. If one soldier died it would be a shock, but I wouldn’t feel anything for the man. Over the course of DUNKIRK’s short but intense running time there was only one character with whom I found myself emotionally engaged, and that was Mark Rylance’s character of Boating Mark Rylance.
To be fair I have almost never felt emotionally engaged with a Christopher Nolan film. I don’t think that’s what he does; INCEPTION, my favorite Nolan, is the movie that touches me the most, but even there I’m bringing in more baggage than the brothers in THE DARJEELING LIMITED. I don’t know that there’s ever been a director this popular who was also this cold, and while sometimes I hate that about him – THE PRESTIGE is a bummer for me because it has so little to care about beyond the mechanics – in DUNKIRK it adds to the experiential nature of the film. Nolan’s icy passionlessness allows him to show it as it was, or at least to convince us that he’s showing it as it was. He doesn’t have the strengths that other war tale tellers have – Vonnegut and Heller’s ironic understanding of the absurdity of war, Spielberg’s melodramatic love for the hearts of the young men fighting the war, Kubrick’s cynicism about the whole enterprise of war – and so he simply shows war to us. It’s like if Uatu the Watcher made himself a WWII movie; it would simply be events as they occurred.
Of course that doesn’t mean Nolan is going for straight realism. You never see a German in DUNKIRK, perhaps one of the most interesting choices you can make in a war film. It eliminates the sense of the enemy being a thing that can be conquered or understood and instead turns war into a vast warping of the nature of reality. Existence itself is out to get you in DUNKIRK, and the characters die as often (if not moreso) from drowning as they do from being shot. This serves to remove all ideology from the story and allows Nolan to get to one of his main thematic concerns: survival. This is a survival horror movie, for sure, and by telling the story of this massive defeat and retreat Nolan is making the statement that sometimes surviving is enough.
He’s also interested in perspective, which has always been one of his driving cinematic concerns. I’m actually surprised that Nolan hasn’t made extensive use of split screen thus far in his career, as it seems like a very immediate way to explore this aspect of reality. He’s always touching on perspective – from MEMENTO to THE PRESTIGE, from THE DARK KNIGHT’s hero we need but don’t deserve to INCEPTION’s layers of dream time – Nolan is obsessed with how the world looks different from our individual experiences.
In DUNKIRK he gets very expressive about that, telling three stories – air, land and sea (although the “land” section takes place like 70% of the time on sea) – in three different time frames. The land section, called “The Mole,” begins a week before the evacuation. The sea section begins one day before, and the air section one hour. He intercuts them, and as the movie goes on you realize that a boat Tom Hardy’s character Spitfire Tom Hardy flies past was actually the one on which Boating Mark Rylance was boating. Some asshole is eventually going to cut together a chronological version of this movie, but that won’t work; by weaving through time Nolan allows himself to create a tempo that rarely flags. It’s DUNKIRK’s intensity that is wowing audiences, and to tell this story chronologically would be to rob it of its greatest asset.
Nobody talks in DUNKIRK, and when they do talk you can’t understand what they’re saying. I’ve noticed this as an issue in Nolan’s work (watching INTERSTELLAR in theaters made me want to get my hearing checked), and either he’s the world’s worst audio mixer or he’s actively trying to downplay the importance of dialogue. DUNKIRK argues the latter; he’s striving to tell this story as visually as possible, and he’s succeeding. You are caught up in the images, themselves rarely flashy. There are moments of flair – a stationary camera captures what it is like to be on a capsizing boat as the ocean suddenly become perpendicular to your standing plane – but they’re always in service of immersion and thematics. Those cool sinking ship shots only underscore how DUNKIRK is a movie about how reality itself is conspiring against these men. It’s very similar to INCEPTION in that way, and it all plays into how Nolan looks at perspective. I think it kind of freaks him out a little bit, the idea that reality is malleable depending upon the observer.
Where DUNKIRK sort of loses me is in those observers. If I cannot care about the people whose stories are being told it’s hard for me to care about their stories on any level beyond the technical. That’s especially true in a story like this, based on history, where the outcome is known. It’s not that I need to be surprised by the ending of a movie – the hero wins in a movie about 98% of the time – but rather that I want to feel the trials and tribulations of the characters as they move towards that inevitable victory (or, in the case of DUNKIRK, survival).
DUNKIRK is a very sense-oriented movie, in that it operates on a rather assaultive level. For me that’s the level it operated on the most, and that’s a level that I find entertaining but not particularly moving. The best example I can give is one I’ve run into the ground in the past – the difference between THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. PASSION is more like DUNKIRK – physically assaultive and immediate. You feel the whips and the nails. But I don’t find that to be meaningful. LAST TEMPTATION, on the other hand, presents a compelling vision of the psychological pain that Christ experienced. I prefer that.
Which isn’t to say DUNKIRK is devoid of that. It’s why I like the Rylance section of the film – it’s the most human and the most relatable and the most emotional. I won’t get into spoilers here, but it’s also the only section where I felt anything at a character’s death, and that was only because I understood that character’s psychology. Again, it isn’t that I misunderstand the survival instinct on display in “The Mole” segments, it’s just that I don’t find them as emotionally compelling. There are other issues in those segments, including the profound interchangeability of the brunette soldier boys (by the end they’re covered in oil and I literally had no idea who was living and who was dying. Perhaps that is purposeful; if so it only distanced me from their plight), but emotional frigidity is what truly kept me outside of the scenes, enjoying them on visceral and technical levels.
If experience has taught me anything it’s that Nolan does those levels well enough that most people are okay with it. I admire what he does, I just usually can’t bring myself to love it. I always hope to be more cerebral in my cinematic appreciation – and sometimes I am, sometimes complex thematic elements really get me off – but it turns out that I need some warmth in there as well. I responded very well to the warm moments in DUNKIRK, but even at his warmest – at the very end of the movie, a moment intended to be upbeat and inspiring – I got so much rainy British staidness from Nolan that I, as easy a movie crier has ever lived, couldn’t get tears out. It was nice! I got the message, and it was heartening! But it didn’t hit me as hard as any of the shells or the bullets or torrents of water did.
So for me DUNKIRK is real middle of the road. It’s not as unbearable as INTERSTELLAR or THE PRESTIGE, but it doesn’t have the beating heart I managed to find in THE DARK KNIGHT and INCEPTION. It is excellent work, unparalleled in skill and craftsmanship, but for me it’s almost all technical. I am impressed, but cannot be in love.