Dunkirk is many things, but traditional it is not. A war movie is what it’s labeled as, but I usually don’t care about war movies. What I care about, however, is details. The smallest details, if precise enough, turn into something big, and that’s this director’s specialty. Christopher Nolan, the same guy that brought us The Dark Knight Trilogy, The Prestige, and Inception, has returned with his most grounded and yet most ambitious film to date.
This isn’t your typical war movie. It’s more of a silent-survival-thriller—or, “a ride”, as Nolan calls it. Through Dunkirk, you’ll hardly understand what anyone is saying, and that’s the point. They’re only meant to be background noise to the score and sound effects. It often sounded like clocks ticking, or a heartbeat, creating an immediate and sudden suspense through the entire 106 minutes of the film.
CGI is at a minimum here and as such, the visuals are arresting. And given that it was shot in 70mm (and IMAX), it might be the most visual film of all time. Especially when you consider just how little dialogue there is in the film. So little that the score is the far more important audio component (you could argue this is true in many great films, but there’s no argument here).
This is a story about time traveling, but only from our point of view (more on this later). This is a story about a war against the Germans, but you never see the Germans. This is a story without much of a story. Instead, Dunkirk throws you directly into the battle, with no buildup, no character development, and hardly any dialogue though the entire film. Dunkirk didn’t waste a second on anything that didn’t matter. This film is about one thing and one thing only: absolute immersion.
You could describe Dunkirk as a silent film at heart — and the superb Hans Zimmer score, battering, surging, metronomically counting off the seconds, is such a constant presence it’s more or less an accompaniment.
“The Enemy” is what they’re called through the movie, never “The Germans”. You never see them either. This makes them appear scarier than they already are.
You never see the Germans. […] The opening text refers to them as just “the enemy.” They are as vague and violent as the dream projections in “Inception,” less of a literal force than a deadly abstraction that lives under our skin, feeds on our fears, and erodes our shared purpose.
My favorite part of Dunkirk is understanding the way time is manipulated. Nolan controls time like no other (Inception’s dreams, Interstellar’s time relativity, Memento’s story told backwards). Dunkirk’s story is told through three perspectives: The Mole (on land) takes place within a week, The Sea takes place within a day, and The Air takes place within an hour. If you’re not conscious of this, the story being told from scene to scene, appears to be happening all at the same time. And it’s because of this that I’ve watched this movie several times already. Land, sea, and air aren’t happening at the same time, now try to keep up.
It’s amazing what you can do when you cut out backstories and let the story speak for itself. […] And this can work when the story actually speaks for itself three different times, from three different perspectives, at three different speeds.