I have seen Dunkirk. It is a stunning achievement for all the typical Nolanian reasons. He fills every corner of the screen with something dramatic, terrifying, lovely, and unforgettable. His mastery of scope and ability to stretch out tension past the breaking point is unmatched — something he’s been perfecting for years, of course.
Something new to me, though, was the discipline Nolan displayed here. In much of his past work, he suffers from occasional tin ear syndrome when it comes to writing words that actual people might actually say in moments of duress. There’s typically a lot of unprocessed idea-suggestion in his dialogue — something quite necessary but grating to explain the metaphysics and actual physics of an Inception or Interstellar, and weirdly thrilling in The Dark Knight. Nolan is an intensely cerebral artist, which sometimes makes it seem as if he doesn’t grasp that the problems of ethics he probes have very real physical and emotional manifestations.
Maybe the temptation to underestimate Nolan on this score is wrong. As far back as Memento, he was considering the ravages of an ambiguous moral space wrought on the body — that movie is about identity just as much as it is memory and time. In The Dark Knight Rises, his willingness to so graphically depict the physical destruction of Bruce Wayne, juxtaposed against the hulking brutality of Bane, suggested a filmmaker beginning to grapple with the physical as much the mental. Again, here, we see Nolan experimenting with conceptions of identity and duality.
Nolan’s pivot in Dunkirk, as others have written, is keeping dialogue at an extreme minimum, choosing instead to tell the story of his characters through their faces. When they speak, their words are explosions of fear and anxiety; their silence throughout the film seems the product of a shell-shocked muteness, a silence of horror.
Nolan’s camera stares intensely into their bruised, bumped, pockmarked visages. (Not even Kenneth Branagh, who plays an officer leading the evacuation, can escape the full-face treatment.) They are imperfect, indistinguishable, black-haired young men. I imagined how must have looked before being pinned down on that beach, their faces bright with handsome youth, now bruised, bumped, drawn sullen and desperate, evacuated of life. There’s a specificity about their look that, I imagine, Nolan could capture only after extensive photographic research. As they line up on the beach in hopes of rescue, there’s something zombie-like and numb to their movements. They are already dead. (Mark Rylance’s heroic civilian boat skipper says something quite like this about soldier just-escaped from the beach.)
The storytelling itself is quite tight and simple, yet laden with a profound complexity. That complexity is in the pacing and inter-cutting of the different vignettes, each of which occurs in a different time frame: the beach story, over the course of a week; the civilian rescue boat story, a day; fighter pilot story, one very tense hour. The brilliance of the decision is how it complicates the passage of time, memory, and history. We think of the evacuation of Dunkirk as a 77-year-old memory, of black and white photos and news reels and maps depicting troop and boat movements, or oral histories with aged survivors. Nolan’s narrative distillation breaks time out into discrete chunks, forcing us to consider the wages of chaos: how does the agony of one week, stretched out across nearly two hours, compare to that of one terrifying hour in the air, compressed? Or the day in the life of Rylance’s character?
The answer is all and none of the above. Desperation and the emotional imprint it leaves are not quantifiable, and defy definition. The deftness of Nolan’s movements between the different vignettes create something of an atemporal fugue that warps your senses.