Review: Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan is one of those directors I feel like a lot of people are looking for reasons to hate. Not that there aren't legitimate criticisms of both his art and his politics, but I feel like those get subsumed in some criticisms of his aesthetics. Yeah he tends to be a little emotionally distant and focused on fitting the pieces of his plot together, but that's what I like about him. If I want emotions, I have other places I can go. And honestly, I've been looking forward to his newest movie Dunkirk since the moment I first saw the trailer. That of course doesn't guarantee it's good; I was very much looking forward to Interstellar before I saw it and, well, the less said about that, the better. But Dunkirk looked very much like it would be right up Nolan's peculiar alley.

Centered around the Dunkirk evacuation (quick version: In World War 2, after a defeat in France, the British and French armies were pinned against the ocean by the Nazis, until the British sent a bunch of civilian ships across the channel to help evacuate them), Dunkirk tells three parallel stories. On the beach, a group of British soldiers try desperately to get their way off the beach and back home. On the ocean, a civilian boat crosses the channel to try and help with the evacuation. And finally, in the air, three British planes try to cover and protect the evacuating boats.

Dunkirk is a movie which I can imagine a lot of people disliking. It's loud, it's bleak and it's a brutally intense experience. It's also an experience I wouldn't trade for anything. I can see how some people might not like or appreciate it, but I loved it to pieces and odds are it will be on my best of 2017 list. So if you want my quickest possible opinion, you should absolutely see it. Even if you don't like it, you should experience it.

"So uh...I don't think it's going well."
Honestly, the thing that recommends it the most is the beautiful direction. Or, maybe beautiful is the wrong word. Striking, like the rest of the movie. Dunkirk contains some of the most striking images of Christopher Nolan's career, and he finds incredible images in even the smallest moment. Anyone can find brilliant imagery in falling bombs or sinking ships, but one of the most striking images is just watching a group of soldiers turn all in unison as they realize they hear an approaching plane. Every frame of this movie embedded itself in my brain after the first viewing, much less after the second.

It's helped by a quietly intense score, one that sometimes pulses underneath the action, almost a part of the sound design and other times breaks out to sound more like a proper score. It's all very well utilized though, and combines with the incredible actual sound design to create a movie that literally keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire runtime. I know a lot of movies promise that, or something like it, but Dunkirk did it for me, keeping me tense enough from start to finish that I was fairly certain I was going to have a heart attack.

"Guys? Guys! GUYS!"
Of course, one of the more contentious things in this movie is the decision to strip the movie's story, characters and dialogue as far down as they can possible go while still being a movie. It's a bold decision, one that worked very well for me, but that might alienate some viewers. It feels authentic to put anything resembling a larger story on the back burner to let the simple scrabbling for survival take the front seat. I'm mixing my metaphors, aren't I?

Not to say that the actors aren't putting in their work too. Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Banard are good in mostly silent roles, who manages to emphasize their desperation and fear as they scramble to get off the mole. Mark Rylance is the obvious emotional heart of the movie, while Cillian Murphy is a great human face to the horrors that are going on. Even Kenneth Brannagh and Ralph Finnes do fantastic, understated work. And yes, it must be said; Tom Hardy can act more with the upper half of his face than most people can with their whole body.

Still, I'm not going to claim that the movie is perfect, and it even has flaws outside of things I file under "Things I like, but some people might not." While from paying close attention I understood the timeline of all the events, the movie could make things clearer. It's also a very oddly paced movie. Its purposeful bucking of character arcs can make it hard to tell where you are in the narrative and that can make it feel longer than it is.

"Is that Harry Styles?"
I saw this movie the same day I finally caught Baby Driver, which yes, was a major emotional whiplash, but I think the two movies are more similar than you might think from their trailers. Both of them are far more concerned with action and sound, rather than with story or character. But while Baby Driver has a story and characters, which are underdeveloped and thus make the film weaker, Dunkirk eschews all of that, creating a stark, pared down film, and one of the best films of the summer.
Elessar is a 27 year old Alaskan-born, Connecticut-based, cinephile with an obsession with The Room and a god complex.