DUNKIRK (2017, Christopher Nolan)
When you’re experiencing a trauma, time has a weird way of warping itself. A week can feel like an hour, and an hour can feel like a week. War, I imagine, is a nightmare from which you never awaken — and nightmares, too, can last a few minutes but feel like days. What a great gambit, then, that Nolan has structured his intense cinematic war poem with three timelines that converge at one moment — and each one is neatly presented at the beginning of the film with text telling us it will last either a week, a day, or an hour.
When those strands cohere, it’s not just narratively satisfying; it hits you on a visceral level as well. You catch your breath discovering which characters are where and what has happened or what will happen (in one case, we see a character appear first in the film days after the second time we see him appear; and in another, we see the same moment twice, from different perspectives, but several minutes of screen time apart, so we can follow both characters on opposite timelines).
This may seem like a bit of a mindfuck, and it is, and you’re forgiven for having a generation of History Channel Oscar bait train you to expect WWII movies to give backstories to its characters and treat exposition like a Wikipedia article. DUNKIRK does not do that. It just asks itself what is the best way cinema can capture this colossal act of terror, then wraps itself in that cape for a sleek 100 minutes. Entire sequences go by with no dialogue and no character-building: just isolated moments of visual WTF — a man drowning in the ocean with fire awaiting him if he brings his head above water; bullets from unseen guns putting holes in the side of a boat one by one; a pilot with a broken fuel gauge having to use a white grease pencil to estimate how much time he has left in flight; another pilot trying to open his jammed canopy before his plane sinks into the sea.
Each of these tiny sequences are paced flawlessly, scored acutely, and gorgeously photographed by new Nolan muse Hoyte Van Hoytema (with him since INTERSTELLAR, once Wally Pfister left to try his hand at directing). You don’t care that you either can’t understand the dialogue or there isn’t any dialogue anyway — you get the idea, and you let the sound and image whisk you into battle. This is the best war film since THE THIN RED LINE, not because it’s long and serious and full of meaning and politics — it’s because it’s a tight, contained, typically non-linear Christopher Nolan movie that happens to use the sheer horror of war as its mode. By the time the beautiful final 10 minutes arrived, I was weeping as much at the joy of admiring the form as I was at the depressing subject matter. Good luck making that Churchill speech land with that much power, Gary Oldman.