Dunkirk Review: The Sound and Fury of Christopher Nolan

Photo Credit:http://www.indiewire.com/t/dunkirk/

Christopher Nolan is a director of spectacle who more wants to put us on the edge of our seat than to wow us. Dunkirk is undoubtedly an experience, just as Inception and Memento were, but is it an experience worth holding onto? That’s been the trouble with a number Nolan’s films: a lack of emotional resonance makes for an experience that diminishes over time, no matter how perfectly crafted it may be. Ranking the director’s films sometimes feels more like ranking the your favorite rollercoasters rather than an auteur’s expressions as a serious filmmaker. Dunkirk is indeed a rollercoaster, but also a film that brings Nolan closer to the central thesis of humanity. What’s amazing about that is how few actual characters are featured in the film.

Dunkirk is mostly devoid of dialogue, instead using sound and scope to weave together a tone poem of survival through despair. The people in the film aren’t really characters, but more of a collection of faces stuck in one of the most dangerous situations in modern history. This slightly more broad, abstract approach to the film’s treatment of human beings taps into two things. First, the most primal of human instincts, survival. Second, unabashed bravery.

The story of what happened at Dunkirk in 1940 has been well told in the nearly 80 years since it happened, but never with such a visceral stamp. The film follows three timelines, young soldiers on a beach who’s story takes place over a week, a family of civilians sailing to Dunkirk on a rescue mission over the course of a day, and a fighter pilot (Tom Hardy) headed to provide air support over just an hour. One of Dunkirk‘s great rewards is how time brings these three groupings together for what really boils down to a single moment that will define their lives and character. Hans Zimmer’s literally ticking score is a tad on the nose, but helps communicate the urgency in the film’s few moments of reprieve.

This altogether makes Dunkirk an exploration of a concept more than your routine narrative, using filmmaking to hone in on an idea or particular filmmaking method. Stanley Kubrick employed similar tactics for 2001, Eyes Wide Shut, Paths of Glory, and others, but the key difference between those films and Dunkirk is philosophy versus spectacle. Where Kubrick reveled in exploring ideologies to the very core of their existence (with wry humor in a lot of cases), Nolan’s concept is much more about how to get us biting our nails than who we are as a species, as Dunkirk eventually goes on to wax poetic about. It’s here where Nolan fails, proving himself closer in mission to Michael Bay than Kubrick.

The chief emotion on display in Dunkirk is fear, which, you have to hand it to him, starts within seconds of the film itself. The sound of a fighter jet is legitimately horrifying here, unlike the typical call for action it is in most war films. But fear can be limiting, and Nolan doesn’t spend enough time diving into what stirs bravery in the face of fear until the third act, when ideas are awkwardly shoehorned in to get some emotion out of the audience. It’s the same flaw that broke Interstellar, a typically cold Nolan film that eventually decided it wanted to be about the power of love. The juxtaposition here isn’t nearly as difficult to swallow, we know war and survival bring out honor and bravery, but had the director introduced these concepts earlier somehow rather than strictly focusing on getting our hearts racing, I could be writing about a masterpiece rather than a stirring exercise.

Again, Dunkirk is insanely effective at what it’s trying to do. That makes it a great experience and a good film. But it’s somewhat disappointing to see the director who made the defining post-9/11 blockbuster, which explored the serious ethical quandaries of the violent, unpredictable unchartered territory we found ourselves in after the World Trade Center fell using Batman and the Joker, set his ambitions so low. When the fear settles, a fear universal to the human condition I’ll admit, there’s nothing really to latch onto in Dunkirk. For that, Nolan continues his streak of instant gratification over genuine meat. For that further, he’s cementing himself as a good filmmaker when he could be a great one once more. He just needs the right story to host his ambitions. And that’s a story that, most likely, he himself will not write. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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