Here it is, July, and the movie to beat in next year’s Oscar race for all the technical awards will be Dunkirk. After his overly-talky and indulgent Interstellar (Interstellar is an enthralling experience … when emo astronauts stop weeping — a film review), writer-director Christopher Nolan, has found a rather decent balance between sound and dialogue. As for character development … well, that seems a bit lost in the blur of the film’s din and visuals.
For much of the beginning of this World War II movie, there’s hardly a word spoken. The notion that the British and French armies are surrounded by the Germans on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, is made apparent by leaflets that rain upon a small platoon of English soldiers scavenging for water and cigarette butts in a deserted village by the beach. That they are out-gunned comes brutally soon after, as they are quickly cut down by joltingly percussive gunfire shot from off screen by an unseen enemy.
But forget the characters, it’s the sound of the machine guns that will hit viewers strongest. Nolan skips the gore but uses quick editing and bone shattering sonics to capture the men’s snuffing. But this is also a hint of what is lacking in the film. These are people with their fleshy fragility against mechanized butchery. But it’s the shock of sound that is meant to unnerve the viewer and the idea that the enemy cannot be seen that will sustain a sort of empty dread. With no hint of the humanity that also lies behind those weapons, Dunkirk becomes something rather distancing, which has lately been a problem in Nolan’s films.
It’s easy to distract from the film’s issues by continuing to heighten the senses, including weaving extra-diegetic music with diegetic sound effects to drive the tension forward. Music swells and recedes and swells and recedes again, and even seems to keep going while syncing with diegetic sounds, like the chug of a boat engine. It makes for an industrial opera by composer Hans Zimmer. His score is mostly minimalist. Strings often grind away on simple melodies that rise and fall with the film’s action or forebode what’s to come. At one point, they drop away save for a single violin as characters speak. The music constantly churns to push the tension forward all the time, even when it just metallic ticks or deep throbs that hum pianissimo below dialogue.
But the most obviously impressive factor are the film’s visuals. The ferocity of the German assault from the sky is captured early on with a beach bombing that begins in the distance and soon covers the entire screen barely missing our lone survivor (Fionn Whitehead) of the film’s opening salvo. The fact that Nolan shot the film in a combination of 65mm and IMAX film speaks to the power of the visuals that beg for a big screen presentation. Anything short of an IMAX viewing will detract from the film’s experience. The vastness of the ocean from the air never felt grander in a film nor more threatening. The theatrical experience is again important for the film’s audio experience. When the bullets impact, you’ll feel it at the base of your neck. The vibrations of the spitfire planes are captured not only in the slight blur of the planes’ cross hairs but also in a rumble you feel in your chest. And the bombings will rattle the bones in your legs. It’s a suffocating and ominous experience.
It’s also most certainly a visceral experience on this sonic and visual level, yet there’s little to say about the people in the movie. As Zimmer’s music builds and slinks throughout the film, editor Lee Smith intercuts between four distinct narratives, but what do they matter to remark upon individually when everyone seems to be blended into a larger symphony of noise? With his face mostly covered, Tom Hardy pilots an itty bitty spitfire doing some heavy lifting in the air while battleships constantly sink below Luftwaffe bombers, spilling souls into the sea that meld with the debris of battle. On the beach, a stoic Navy commander stands (Kenneth Branagh) on a pier strategizing and standing as example of bravery. Then there are a trio of panicked soldiers (Whitehead, Damien Bonnard and Harry Styles) scurrying for shelter or looking for a way off the beach by their own means. It could be seen as testament, especially in regards to a pop idol like Styles, to their humbling performances that they all sort of look alike in the drab fatigues with their dark hair and pale skin, but it’s another distancing factor that also makes them feel like pawns on pyrotechnic chess board.
The most intimate of these stories features a father (Mark Rylance) and son (Tom Glynn-Carney) sailing toward the beach, with one of the son’s friends (Barry Keoghan), who are among several civilian sailors rushing to help evacuate their countrymen. Tragedy besets them, as well, after they make their first rescue (Cillian Murphy). But they too feel like signifiers in the melange of this “experiential” movie.
To give Nolan credit, he does strain to make all these people human by minimizing excessive chatter. But making a loud movie with overwhelming visuals that rattle the viewer undermines such efforts. There’s no intimacy in all the technical prowess. When characters are placed in peril to arrange for spectacular set pieces, you chip away at their humanity, creating an emotional alienation that diffuses tension that should be more than visceral.
Dunkirk runs 106 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens in South Florida in wide release on Friday, July 21. You can catch it on 70mm at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. For screening details in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website. Warner Bros. invited us to a preview screening in IMAX for the purpose of this review.