MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Dunkirk’ is a minimalist master-class of epic scope

Packed to the brim with tension, Christopher Nolan's war film is one of haunting starkness and beautiful hope

| July 18, 2017

I know what you’re thinking: “Oh great, another Nolan fanboy here to tell you how amazing ‘Dunkirk” is…” and to that, you would be right. Granted, I can’t fully call myself a Nolan fanboy, as I’m not really a quote-unquote “fanboy” of anything, but I do have the filmmakers that I typically tend to admire and connect with most more than other filmmakers on multiple levels. These four filmmakers, while not particularly original when it comes to the “movie lover bandwagon” picks for favorite filmmakers, but they are as follows: Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Ridley Scott, Quentin Tarantino. These four filmmakers have an elevated status in my eye, one that has come from the craft that it takes to win me over to your side time and time again. That being said, none of the filmmakers can make something bad and get away with it, it’s just that I don’t have to face that reality as often as one might think. Back in my freshman year, before I was able to see films early, I was first in line to see “Interstellar” at Crownpoint (when it was still Crownpoint) for its 35mm premiere on a Tuesday night. What I was treated to was a movie that I loved, but didn’t completely know how to feel on it at first, but as time has gone on, the world has been kind to “Interstellar,” making it stand out as Nolan’s best, most ambitious, riskiest work. When “Dunkirk” was announced, I really had no real feeling about Nolan taking on a war film, as it felt simply too straightforward for a film for Nolan to take on post-“Interstellar.”

But I simply knew he had more up his sleeve, to which he delivered in spades.

“Dunkirk” doesn’t have a traditional plot like most films do, but rather drops us directly into the action of three separate timelines during the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk, that saw over 338,000 men evacuated from the beaches of pre-Nazi-occupied France, with much help from civilian boats cast off from the coast of Southern England. One timeline, titled “The Mole,” showcases the struggle from the beaches through the eyes of a young soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead). The next, titled “The Sea,” shows the viewpoint pointed in the direction of a civilian sailor, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and deck hand, George (Barry Keoghan), as they sail from England to France, picking up a deserted solider (Cillian Murphy) along the way, who fights their insistence to return him to France. The last timeline, titled “The Air” showcases the fast-paced dogfighting taken on by the Royal Air Force, focusing on a determined, risky pilot, Farrier (Tom Hardy).

If you’ve seen anything about “Dunkirk” covered recently, it’s probably been a number of film critics going crazy over how the film must be seen in 70mm IMAX and to drive as far as you need to to see the film in the format. This is where I think I will differ, because I know damn well that a normal reader would not have the patience to drive forever to see a single film in a single format when it’s playing down the street from them, and that’s coming from me, a pretty present format whore. Warner Bros. didn’t feel the need to screen the film for critics in either 70mm, IMAX digital or 70mm IMAX, leaving us with just a digitally projected image, which still managed to be beautifully haunting. Luckily, for Charlotte-area readers, the options for viewing “Dunkirk” are numerous. You have your standard digital projection, which I would recommend only if nothing else is available, which includes the RPX at Birkdale Village. The film is also available in digital IMAX at Concord Mills, Northlake and Stonecrest. It’s available in standard 70mm film at Stonecrest. But the film’s magnum opus viewing experience is the full 70mm IMAX experience at the Discovery Place IMAX dome in Uptown. Having seen “The Dark Knight Rises” there, which was the last mainstream film to play at the theater in 2012, the domed theater offers up an incredibly immersive, unique and beautifully shell-shocking viewing experience for those willing to take the dive.

While “Dunkirk” is releasing to near universal acclaim from critics, the ones who liked, but didn’t love the film are finding complaints in the film’s structure, to which I found to be one of my favorite aspects of “Dunkirk.” Over the past few years, war films have really attempted to bring you into these stories by attaching you to characters that are supposed to tug at your heartstrings in personal connection, but Nolan makes it a point to throw audiences as directly into the action as he can, nixing intimate moments that slow down much of what the evacuation of Dunkirk didn’t do in real life. Nolan hits the ground running and brings audiences into the experience at breakneck speeds that disorient even the most fervent of film watchers. What makes this so well-done is that the film brings in the scope of the war by not stopping for pleasantries, and especially in the amount of stranger interactions each of the characters face, there’s this level of trusting trepidation and eventual suspicions that plague many of these characters throughout. As the film goes on, you begin to realize that the three storylines don’t simply co-exist, but cleverly loop into each other in a way that’s initially quite jarring, but once you see it as a whole, it hits hard. It’s decidedly minimalist, but incredibly effective.

Having only seen the film in digital, I can’t fully comment on the entire experience that 70mm IMAX will bring to the film, but I can, without a doubt say that “Dunkirk” is one of the most visually stunning films of the year, in such an organic way that it’s something you might forget to notice from time to time. This isn’t “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” as the film uses little to no CGI at all throughout the entirety of the film. This is a film that feels incredibly real, and the way that Nolan transports audiences directly into the action, rather than simply being a camera off to the side, makes this one of the more immersive films of the past few years, almost like the camera is providing a first person view into the tension of war.

But “Dunkirk” turns the conventions of war movies on its head, also. One of the more interesting elements of “Dunkirk” is that it features nearly zero violence whatsoever throughout the entire film. Sure, the film features many sequences of war, placing characters in peril from explosions, dogfights, shipwrecks and other forms of danger, but the film never moves into any graphic or exploitative territory that many war films seem to try to check the boxes of after “Saving Private Ryan” did it so well that one time almost 20 years ago. Nolan explores the concept of war as more of an emotional and spiritual endeavor for these men before it ever was a physical one.

Behind the film once more, Nolan has teamed up with legendary composer Hans Zimmer for a score so nerve-wracking that without it, I’m unsure just how tense “Dunkirk” really would’ve been. Throughout the film, “Dunkirk” employs the ticking sound of a watch slowly getting faster in nearly every important scene in the film. While this sounds like something that might initially be annoying, the way in which Zimmer pairs this with his wonderfully beautiful music is one that is as impressive as it is effective as it is gorgeous. While I still hold Michael Giacchino’s score from “War for the Planet of the Apes” more dearly, this is just one more reason “Dunkirk” soars.

The hardest part about writing about “Dunkirk” is that it does nothing that a typical film that you would expect about World War II would do, making the conventions of covering everything it does right incredibly unconventional. This isn’t a film that feels it has to check boxes for audience’s sake, or for the sake of pleasing anyone else but Nolan, which is what prestige filmmaking boils down to, as much as we try to make it seem less selfish than it is. This isn’t a film that follows one rule in its entirety, nor does the film go so far “out there” that it alienates audiences from what one might not expect. This is a film that defies expectations, but never breaks standards.

Clocking in at 107 minutes, this is a shockingly short film for Nolan, especially after “Interstellar” cracked 170 minutes in its initial run. That being said, despite not cracking two hours, “Dunkirk” feels about four hours long, if only due to the insane amount of tension built up in the film. When you’re constantly on edge about the fate of the characters and the battles they fight, time moves at a glacial pace and slows perception down that the film feels about as long as “Interstellar” was. The way in which Nolan and editor Lee Smith manipulate time in “Dunkirk” is simply astounding and quite fascinating from an objective, outside standpoint.

I almost feel like having not seen “Dunkirk” in 70mm IMAX, or at least in digital IMAX, that I can’t truly critique the film in its entirety, but the truth of the matter is that “Dunkirk” is simply one of, if not the best film of 2017 so far. Coming from a person who doesn’t particularly like war films, I find this even more impressive. This is a film that breaks rules, even rules set by precedent in Nolan’s previous films. This shows Nolan as far more than a one trick spectacle pony, but a master auteur of the most effective variety. Nolan is a different kind of auteur in that he isn’t alienating of casual filmgoers like many artsy filmmakers eventually find themselves doing, but remains a crowd-pleaser just as much as he is a critic-pleaser, which is where the argument many people make of “fans vs. critics” goes way out of the window. “Dunkirk” is a beautifully stark, hauntingly shell-shocking and a borderline sensory overload film that does nearly everything right. While “Interstellar” might be Nolan at his most ambitious, “Dunkirk” is Nolan at his most consistent.

5/5

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, with Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, and Tom Hardy.
Runtime: 106 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for intense war experience and some language.
Also available in premium large format theaters, 35mm, 70mm, IMAX digital and 70mm IMAX.

Warner Bros. Pictures presents, a Syncopy production, a film by Christopher Nolan, “Dunkirk”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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