DirkH’s review published on Letterboxd:
This is a horror movie.
And I don't mean that this is a war movie about the horrors of the second world war.
No, at its core, Dunkirk is a horror movie. A relentless, oppressive, frightening, tense and extremely discomforting film with a faceless monster stalking and preying on our protagonists.
And because it is a horror movie, it delivers the sheer terror of the bizarre and incomprehensible situation our protagonists find themselves in with full force.
It starts with an almost poetic calm. No words are spoken, quiet glances are exchanged and then the monster starts, that omnipresent enemy and when he starts he doesn't stop and from the moment he starts we are immediately confronted with the fickleness of human life.
And ever time the monster roars we cringe, we want to look away, we sympathise, empathise and forget to breathe. We want them to survive, to be well, to get home and escape the beast.
This is a horror movie.
Nolan has crafted something extraordinary. The meticulousness with which he has directed this film is truly impressive. I've always felt Nolan to be a better director than writer and here, with basically no plot or story, he has given himself the opportunity to flex his muscles. And boy does he ever. The amalgamation of visual composition and music is of such a high standard that they merge into one thing with one simple purpose. To completely and utterly jar its audience. The relentlessness with which Nolan bombards (pun intended) you with scene after scene of unmitigated tension is something only a handful of directors have managed to pull off. There is hardly any time to gasp in wonder at mise-en-scene and stunning camera work because you're too busy gasping for air and stealing yourself for the next bout of horror.
Like I said, storywise it's straightforward. But this is still a Nolan film and like in practically all of his other films, he just cant keep it simple. He chooses to tell his story disjointed. Once I started noticing there was something off in the way certain scenes followed each other I felt that 'Nolan dread' creep upon me, feeling sure he messed it up yet again. Fortunately that couldn't be further from the truth. A ticking clock is what makes it work.
Time is messed up in this film. We switch between three narratives but they are not always synchronized. What this does is that in Dunkirk, time simply disappears, there is only now and the next moment we need to survive. That beach felt like purgatory, a place you can't escape from. This a-synchronous approach could make it all feel too loosely connected and confusing, but Nolan manages to find urgency in each and every frame of his film. And for that he uses a simple trick. A constant ticking clock in the background. It is what ties everything together, no matter how hard you try, you can't escape time. And that clock becomes as big a monster as the faceless beast stalking that beach.
Nolan understands here that he doesn't need words to add strength to the story, he just needs the story and the big heart that goes with it. With hardly any dialogue he manages to make his passion for this film, for filmmaking in general and for its subject burst from the screen with startling conviction. This is not some gratuitous tribute, it is a heartfelt homage to the notion of people laying down or risking their lives for freedom. And instead of being syrupy about it, Nolan tries to emulate and make us experience the raw horror of that ticking clock.
Films rarely shake me to my core, but Dunkirk was such an overwhelming experience I can only give it full marks. I love the fact that a film about such a horrendous subject manages to instill in me that effect without being graphic in any way.
Dunkirk is a horror movie. And one that will stay with me for quite some time.