Dunkirk ★★★★½

Chris Nolan, you magnificent prick.

I was this close to writing him off, increasingly sure he peaked with DARK KNIGHT. INCEPTION had a mechanical quality that left me cold despite its many impressive achievements. While not the disastrous ball drop it’s remembered as, DARK KNIGHT RISES couldn’t help but pale in comparison to its predecessor. And the less said about the overinflated, underdeveloped INTERSTELLAR, the better. After all that, I wasn’t exactly holding my breath for Nolan’s next movie.

Well, once this started, I began to hold my breath. It was a rare moment when I wasn’t holding it.

This is probably the single most audacious film Nolan’s made, and yes I know how big a statement that is. He’s made an existential horror picture that’s disguised itself as a war movie. The comparisons to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s D-Day sequence make sense, but for all its relentlessness there was still a traditional form to that sequence. There’s one side, there’s the other side, and they’re duking it out for supremacy. Here, however, danger can strike at any time, from anywhere. It’s no accident that you never see the Germans; what do they matter when you can just as well drown, crash or starve?

For better or worse, Nolan isn’t making a political statement; he’s running a scientific experiment. At heart he’s always been an architect, a mathematician, a surveyor, and his primary focus here is creating a certain set of conditions and observing how they affect his subjects. Any variables that could confuse the issue are kept out. This might explain why a movie that plays on such a huge scale feels so confined and claustrophobic. We’re observing everyone through a microscope, albeit one that gives us an IMAX-sized image.

Yet that intensity of gaze is also the very thing that keeps DUNKIRK from being just a thesis statement. It gives the movie a tactile immediacy that keeps us tied to the specifics of the characters’ experiences. We see what they see, we hear what they hear, and even though we keep jumping from one to another we’re still stuck in the same boat. The complaints about the lack of characterization miss the point entirely; we’re not supposed to focus on how all these soldiers are different from each other. We’re meant to see how they’re all the same.

I’m now convinced that what separates a great Christopher Nolan film from the rest is that they take his structures and blueprints and fill them with the chaos he keeps resisting. MEMENTO’s famous backwards-forwards structure plunged us into the mind of a man broken by a senseless act. THE DARK KNIGHT embodied the order vs. chaos theme in the tension between the restrained, disciplined filmmaking and Heath Ledger’s live wire act of a performance. This time, everything inside the film is chaos, and his characters are desperately trying to escape from it. The ways they attempt this are incredibly revealing; the movie's only an hour forty-five but covers more ground than INTERSTELLAR and arguably INCEPTION.

To make this long review very, very short, DUNKIRK is both Nolan’s most formal film and his most human. Quite the paradox.


SIDE NOTE: Once Daniel Day-Lewis retires after PHANTOM THREAD comes out, Mark Rylance will be the greatest actor working today. That’s right, shots have been fired…

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