Dunkirk ★★★★½

How does a director respond to criticism?

When I ask this question, I don't mean it in terms of uncomfortable interviews or Twitter conversations - I mean it in terms of film itself. How does a director adapt their films to respond to critique? There's no right answer to this question, of course, but certain solutions do tend to pop up more than others. Some filmmakers ignore their critics, returning to business as usual in order to please their fanbases. Others use their films as a chance to shield themselves against critique by creating works that implicitly or explicitly defend their artistic outlook (looking at you here, Lady in the Water).

Then there's the matter of directors who form works around their critiques, taking their criticisms as challenges and attempting to resolve them... which brings us to Dunkirk.

As far as I know, Christopher Nolan hasn't stated whether Dunkirk is a response to criticism or not. I doubt he ever will - Nolan loves building his films as codes, jigsaw puzzles where the greatest catharsis comes not from the content of the art but from the process of assembling it. At the same time, however, it's hard to ignore how distant this is from Nolan's most divisive aspects as a storyteller. There are no dead wives (at least not that I know of), minimal dialogue that never gives its speakers the chance to go off on big speeches about philosophy, and practically no attempt to create political relevance. Even the score is exempt, so doused in John Carpenter-esque frantic minimalism that Hans Zimmer doesn't get a chance to apply Philip Glass organs or a single solitary BRAAAAAAHM.

So what's left when you strip away all of these surface-level traits? What remains of Nolan when you take most of the trappings of Nolan away from him? The answer, oddly enough, is far more primal than you'd expect from cinema's current watchmaker-in-chief. Dunkirk isn't so much an ordinary war movie as it is a Murphy's Law-fueled panic attack committed to celluloid, a horror film where the unstoppable slashers are the elements themselves, a fractured PTSD memory of guilt and paranoia and the vague memory of hope. Dialogue is perfunctory, there to say what the visuals can't. Everything - character, situation, greater meaning - comes from action and image alone, from the sudden opening plunge into the calm before a storm to the heroism-deflating gut punch of a final cut.

Dunkirk isn't necessarily a reinvention of Christopher Nolan - what it is, however, is a refinement. It's a film that refocuses the best aspects of his identity, putting them to work in ways the Nolan of the Dark Knight films could only dream about. It might be his best film, or it might not be. I don't know if it matters either way. This film made me ever-so-briefly forget my mixed feelings about The Dark Knight, my problems with Interstellar, and my respectful agnosticism towards Nolan's style. That's more than any critic could ever ask for.

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