I’ve never related to a character more than when he had the urgent need to poop in the midst of heightened stress.
Nolan replaces the high concepts and expository dialogue for a more stripped down and visceral experience. Dunkirk has a lot in common with a sirloin steak; they’re lean, mean, and satiating. With a runtime of 104 minutes, it gets in and out and it always moves with purpose. Right from the start, Nolan establishes the stakes by showering the screen with propaganda leaflets showing how outnumbered the Allied troops are. It’s now become a race through time as the Allies try to survive the onslaught while awaiting to be rescued. The enemy is never seen, but their presence is constantly felt as the threat of danger looms offscreen.
The opening sequence is an absolute banger of an intro because of how Nolan is able to show the desperation of the situation without having to rely on dialogue. The very first shot has soldiers walking through the quiet town of Dunkirk before a barrage of gunfire dispatches most of the Allied troops. We then meet Tommy who manages to escape the gunfire unscathed and he’s desperate to sneak his way onto the ships leaving Dunkirk. As he’s trying to make his way out of the beach, he meets a fellow soldier called Gibson and both carry a wounded soldier on a hospital carrier to one of the hospital ships in the hopes of catching a free ride. Because of the constant urgency in Dunkirk, we don’t learn about these characters through backstories and exposition, but we learn about the kind of people they are as we see them react to the events that unfold around them. We understand Tommy and Gibson’s desperation to escape and the resources they use in their attempts to get out, but even amidst their desperation for survival, they never lose their own humanity.
I’m going to use this moment to address the criticisms that Dunkirk doesn’t have any character to emotionally connect with because I think that’s some fake news! Dunkirk isn’t about a single character, but rather, it’s about the collective experience and the interconnecting stories related to the events at Dunkirk. The fact that this was an actual slight against the movie indicates that most critics missed the entire point of the film. Everything happens so fast in Dunkirk that there’s not enough time to slow down when time is of the essence so instead of establishing one clear protagonist with one unique motivation, Nolan gives us an ensemble of characters who all have one clear motivation: survival.
When left with the simple need for survival, men will either succumb to their baser instincts, or they will overcome their animal nature and Nolan’s interest with Dunkirk is to see how each character reacts under the pressure. In one sequence, Tommy and Gibson make it aboard a destroyer, but while Tommy chooses to go below decks, Gibson chooses to stay outside in case he needs to make an escape. Of course, the destroyer gets hit by a torpedo but in an act of selflessness, Gibson manages to open up the hatch to allow all the trapped soldiers to escape. If this isn’t an effective way to flesh out a character, then what is? Even with few dialogue spread out between a bevy of different characters, you end up rooting for everyone because Nolan chooses to focus on how the characters react.
FINAL VERDICT: 4.5/5
Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s a cinematic rollercoaster ride that manages to establish character and stakes without having to rely on dialogue. When I think of the “theater experience” I think of Dunkirk and its various Imax shots during the dogfight sequences. The scale is epic, the score is gripping, and the pacing is sprightly and it never slows down for one moment. This is vastly different from Nolan’s prior works but it also carries the same filmmaking style he’s had since Memento. For some, the lack of a definable character might be a detriment, but even without a clear protagonist, Nolan’s technical prowess is what makes Dunkirk a powerful and visceral experience.