Review – Dunkirk

Dunkirk Poster

Christopher Nolan directs this World War II epic, based around the infamous Battle of Dunkirk where 400,000 Allied troops were trapped on the titular beach, desperately seeking a way to safety across the channel.

Dunkirk is Nolan’s shortest film and perhaps his most confusing. Yes I have seen Inception and Memento. Without following any straightforward narrative, we’re dropped into three distinct scenarios, all unfolding during the battle of Dunkirk, though not all necessarily at the same time. The non-linear storytelling coupled with less than easy to distinguish characters and minimal dialogue makes keeping track of what is going on nigh-impossible on the first viewing.

While not nearly so off-putting as The Tree of Life, was, I can imagine a similar situation to audience disappointment and walkouts with Dunkirk. People are going to go into this movie expecting perhaps World War Batman. They’re not going to get it. What they will get is probably something better, but are they going to go for it? I don’t know.

Instead of giving us a traditional story to follow, Nolan has created a wartime symphony – an artistic orchestral piece of emotion and nearly abstract sequences. When I call Dunkirk an orchestral piece, I’m not just referring to the cacophony of horns, strings, and percussion that Hans Zimmer melds with the sweeping visuals. Each scene and each of the scenarios could be thought of as movements, as parts in a musical arrangement themselves. Oftentimes juxtaposed with one another – a ship full of drowning soldiers fills our screen just before we’re taken to a downed pilot struggling with a water-filled cockpit – the harmonies and melodies of the scenes themselves come together to form a conceptual whole. It’s not entirely abstract – there are clear story threads, but they are less important than the overall composition.

Despite the arrangement of scenes and ideas, the film would fall apart were it not for the score tying things together and creating a near constant tension for the entirety of the film. Like the recent Baby DriverDunkirk lives and breathes with its music (though in a different manner), from start to finish, without more than a momentary pause. The physical action has a musical quality and the music takes on a presence that transcends the auditory. Together they create something greater than the sum of their parts.

This is not a traditional war movie in any sense. Relatively devoid of gore and violence, those classic war elements are replaced by others even more effective – tension and dread, along with confusion and despair. By telling the story of Dunkirk without actually telling a “story,” Nolan has created a cinematic poem that transports the audience into the consciousness of the thousands of people that were there that day. Though there are some primary protagonists here, we don’t have the classic hero to root for, and so are left free to do more than that.

Despite being confused for the better part of this movie, I enjoyed it. It’s moving and intricate. Emotional and important. Beautiful and terrifying, and a tribute to the resilience of a country, a people, and ideals. A military disaster turned into a rallying cry and proof that there is always a way out. I’ll need to see it again before declaring it a cinematic masterpiece but it is something to be experienced.

Mrs. Hamster did not screen this film

Brother Hamster did not screen this film

My rating: Four out of five hats

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Trailer:

Dunkirk takes the battle to 3,720 theaters, July 21