Where Saving Private Ryan tells an intimate story against the backdrop of war and the Thin Red Line ruminates about the philosophical nature of man and his role in war, Dunkirk is solely focused on the event itself. It’s an hour and 47 minutes of horror disguised as a war movie that had me slack-jawed the entire time.
There is no preamble. No getting to know the men we’re rooting for. Writer, director Christopher Nolan eschews whispered stories by lamp light—a bottle of something strong passed around—for a quiet opening scene of British soldiers walking down an empty street. Then gunfire. Then long stretches of hell. Then the end credits. You never see the enemy, German faces are never shown. There is never a swell of music as the good guys rush oncoming troops. Just a few lines at the very beginning stating the enemy has French and British soldiers surrounded.
Nolan proves you don’t need a R rating to create a gripping depiction of violence and the things it does to men. From the power of the performances, we’re made to understand what’s happened on those beaches. Stretches of tense boredom and waiting for transport home, are punctuated by brief spouts of violence.
I would love to take a look at the script for Dunkirk to see how short it is, because the dialogue is kept to a minimum. Instead, facial expressions and the ever piercing blue eyes of Tom Hardy tell us all we need to know. In fact I don’t think there’s a line of dialogue spoken until a good ten minutes into the movie. Just waves crashing on the shore, the piercing scream of German fighter plane and the guttural howls of dying men.
The cast is large and well rounded. Most notable are the veterans: Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy and Kenneth Branagh. While they all turn in solid performances, with Tom Hardy given even less lines than in Batman, surprisingly it’s Harry Styles who stood out the most for me. He plays terrified well. With a mixture of anger and desperation, Styles sells the plight of the common grunt trying to get home.
The score composed by Hans Zimmer and the cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema are also fan-fucking-tastic. In the quieter moments, where you know doom is imminent but just off on the horizon, it’s Zimmer’s score that had me terrified. It was the faded browns and blues Hoytema captures on screen, that had me nervous. I saw Dunkirk in a 70mm showing and would highly recommend seeing it this way if you get the chance. What vibrant colour is in the film, pops. A particular red sweater making a notable impression throughout.
And I haven’t even gone into the fuckery that is the way Nolan abuses our sense of time. Splitting up the beach, the sea and the air into distinct and often confusing moments. An hour, a day and a week. It doesn't always work and feels a tad pretentious. But in saying that, it’s also ambitious so I have to hand it to Nolan for at least having the gall to throw certain things at the audience, whether or not we actually understand what he’s intending to do.
One last thing I’ll mention is the use of a particular point of view shot as a fighter plane is falling from the sky. Watching the pilot's POV as he descends towards the water, towards certain death, had me wanting to throw up. It’s a harrowing few minutes of filmmaking that left me wondering just exactly how Nolan was able to capture it.
I think Dunkirk will be the first Nolan film to garner serious awards attention, but that’s besides the point. What’s more striking in my mind is that he’s made a film without a overt message, as is often the case with a film about war. There’s no theme he’s trying to cram down our throats, no bias is shown towards good or evil. Instead Christopher Nolan has forced us relive the horror of one of the most under appreciated and pivotal events of the second world war.
Dunkirk: Do I really need to tell you to go see this one?