by Scotty Daniels
In most cases before and after seeing a film, I avoid reading or watching other reviews until my own is done as to not allow my opinion to be swayed (being of both a weak mind and gutless disposition), however in this case I made a crucial exception. Walking out of the cinema after seeing Dunkirk in a Prestige (read; unjustifiably overpriced) theatre, I knew certain key elements were going to divide an audience instantaneously; of course it would, it’s a Christopher Nolan film. Why wouldn’t it? Nolan’s track record following The Dark Knight/Inception seem to always show two distinctive trademarks; they’re visually stunning, yet is let down by one thematic element (usually dialogue or character motivation) which at best comes across pretentious, yes looking at you Interstellar, and at worst fundamentally sloppy (The Dark Knight Rises). Perhaps wanting validation to support my own opinion, perhaps wanting clarification on my personal interpretation of what I had just seen, I turned to the learned, reliably academic world of the internet in search of supportive opinions. Playing out as polar opposites, one critic completely embraced it, recognising Nolan’s trademark variance of the Hollywood formula and modern war film tropes. The other denied it, stating that whilst being pretty to look at, complained about the lack of dialogue, characterisation, and traditional plot beats. Their argument rested on the flimsy foundation that for a film to be entertaining, let alone function, it must still submit to a formula. It is hard to dismiss the context that the latter critic is an enormous DC/Marvel fan and throws A+ reviews at every superhero movie, however what saves them from being a blatant normie fan boy is that they are usually quite self-aware of their own occasionally brodude tendencies. Why discuss this at all then? For the simple fact that there seems to be such a definitive line between those hailing Dunkirk as a modern classic, to those claiming it was confusing and boring and that they didn’t get it. Why is this important? Because, and for the simple fact; Aa movie is being dismissed solely for not subscribing to formula. It’s a Nolan film…why would it?
Do not get this reviewer wrong; at no point am I implying that an audience can’t find something boring, or bad, of course mine is an opinion like anyone else’s. I can also take or leave Christopher Nolan films themselves; personally I adore The Dark Knight and Inception, yet find The Dark Knight a wasted mess, Interstellar a promising yet unfortunate descent into hilariously pretentious cheese. In lieu of a standard review, instead this will be more of an essay, or a (correct) lecture on why Dunkirk is good and if you don’t like it, it probably means you’re stupid and to paraphrase Mr Plinkett, “think that ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is the boringest one.”
Straight out of the door, the narrative devices used to portray time are definitely going to filter out the members of the audience adverse to reading, counting or engaging their short term memory. The film intertwines three storylines, introducing their key locations and timeframes at the outset (a week on the beach with the escaping soldiers, a day on the English Channel with the rescue boats, an hour in the sky with the aerial support) and the narrative refuses to hold our hand as stories jump from day to night and back again, and the same events are shown non-consecutively from multiple viewpoints. With a lesser editor these jumps would be distracting at best and disorientating at worst, however Nolan unapologetically throws these events at the audience and actually allows them piece together the chronology themselves. Over-explanation is such a tired trope that it actually feels empowering to an audience that a director should give them the benefit of the doubt to either keep up or catch up on this technique, and also take advantage of it to crank up some serious tension.
One of the biggest criticisms of Dunkirk is the minimal dialogue and characterisation, yet this is a crucial aspect of what makes the film so unique. Dialogue is deliberately is kept to a minimum, refreshingly and logically so specifically amongst the escaping men stuck on the beach; exhausted, terrified soldiers awaiting their fate as enemy planes bomb them on an open beach are not going to be divulging to each other about their girls back home or even their names. The subverted expectation thrown on confused audiences, no doubt used to and expecting absolutely pointless exchanges to the effect of “tell my wife…I love her” whilst holding their intestines offscreen no doubt was challenging, but more than ever felt appropriate and necessary for this story. In Dunkirk, countless men fight for survival, and often lose; they die suddenly, in the dark, confused, alone and terrified. The “enemy” is never seen other than from the character’s perspectives, mainly limited to the faceless aerial attacks, remains a constant, imminent threat throughout the whole film. A sequence involving a beached boat and target practice features tension so unbearable and yet plays almost exclusively off the characters reactions to that and each other.
Sound is another crucial element that was either ignored, dismissed or misunderstood by some. Nolan more often than not strives for realism in his mixes, which in a film like Interstellar, admittedly can be incredibly confusing and frustrating when the score and sound effects are both turned up to 11. However, in Dunkirk, there is a practicality to it; the soundtrack is occasionally hard to make out at times because the characters are experiencing that in the moment. The music too, employs a very ingenious constant of psycho-acoustics; in lieu of a traditional score for the most part, composer Hans Zimmer employs a Shepherd tone; a repeating, ascending pitch spread across three octaves; the highest octave lowers in volume as the pitch rises, the lowest octave rises in volume, and the middle remains at a constant. The resulting sensation, coupled with an insistent ticking clock motif, creates probably the most unbearable tension I’ve witnessed in a film as long as I can remember, and hits on a fundamental, psychological level. It’s genuinely fascinating stuff, check it out here:
As stated before, an audience is allowed to not enjoy a film. However, if the intention is to dismiss it because you’re not willing to accept what you can’t immediately compartmentalise, well, the new Transformers movie is out soon. Simply put; just because you don’t understand a thing, does not mean it is worthy of instant dismissal. That kind of logic is in line with “the people who keep peanut butter in the fridge also probably had a horrible childhood.” Whilst that’s quite a leap in logic, I’m just saying, there’s been a jar of peanut butter in my fridge and it’s definitely not me who puts it there.