Ticktickticktick. A gun fires. Ticktickticktick. A bomb drops. Ticktickticktick. Sand flies and water rushes. Ticktickticktick. Time is not an ally when the enemy surrounds you from every conceivable angle. It is, however, writer/director Christopher Nolan’s (Interstellar/The Dark Knight Trilogy) plaything in Dunkirk, the anxiety-riddled wartime reenactment of the Dunkirk evacuation during World War II. Forgoing the usual character-driven formula, Nolan instead uses time as the driving force throughout all of Dunkirk, splitting it into three distinct pieces which converge only at the final moments.
In 1940, amidst the Second World War, 400,000 soldiers stood on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, with the water at their backs, seemingly waiting to be killed by advancing enemy forces. When destroyers and other military vessels were unable to travel close enough to shore due to shallow waters, a civilian militia was activated to travel from England to Dunkirk as a last ditch effort to evacuate the stranded soldiers. Under siege by land and air, the soldiers could do nothing more than try to stay alive long enough for someone to come save them.
Ticktickticktick. Images of a small group of soldiers walking through the streets with flyers proclaiming that the enemy has the Allied forces surround falling from the sky are intercut with text, setting the stage for what's to come. The screen cuts from text to soldiers and back again with the rhythm of a slow heartbeat – tick.tick.tick.tick – until an unseen assailant picks off one of the soldiers, sending the rest scrambling for safety. From this moment forward, Nolan’s purpose is to set his audience on edge and leave them there. To do this, Nolan splits the timeline of events into three distinct pieces: The Mole (One Week), The Sea (One Day), and The Air (One Hour). Doing so serves two clever purposes: (1) it enables perspective to shift from one timeline to another as soon as whatever dramatic action settles, maintaining a high-level of anxiety in each timeline. (2) It contributes to the unbelievable confusion that the characters endure; whether this means dodging bullets on land, trying to escape a sinking ship at sea, or surviving an aerial dogfight, the continuous time jumps maintain a steady amount of disorientation. Combining this technique with his preference for midrange and close-up shots, Nolan prevents the audience from getting even a single moment to catch their breath. There is truly no relief to be found anyway, as the entirety of Dunkirk is one long climax sequence in which the central characters are fighting for their lives. Ticktickticktick.
In many ways, Dunkirk is a composite film, as if Nolan’s prior work were merely test pieces in the run up to this one. This doesn’t diminish the final product, so much as feel like the apex of a great talent. Nolan harnessed time to layout events to their horrifying conclusion, much like he did in Memento. Nolan presented characters whose every decision laid waste to the world around them, just as he did in The Prestige. Nolan produced sequences that felt expansive and cosmic, similar to his achievements in Interstellar. By combining all of these attributes, Nolan creates a film that’s unadulterated atmospheric emotion driven by impeccably shot scenes, an anxiety-riddled score, and characters that are more archetype than man. It’s beautifully devastating with what feels like less than ten pages of dialogue throughout its deceptively short runtime. Scene after scene, moment after moment, Nolan pounds his audience the way that the continuously unknown enemy bombards the soldiers over and over again. So relentless is Nolan’s score as it highlights the characters' growing strain to survive, that it begins to feel like another piece of the story as though the score represents time itself, doggedly hounding each timeline as it sprints toward its inevitable conclusion. Ticktickticktick.
One aspect of Dunkirk that’s likely to estrange some audiences is the lack of standard characterization or the emotional journey that exists within any story, but especially within wartime films. There are three characters who serve as the main for each timeline and nothing is known about them beyond what we see and what they share with their fellow compatriots. What we do know is distilled down to its purest: Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is the soldier we follow from the start of the film, whose journey on the Mole is to find any means possible off the beach to get home; Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is the owner of a civilian vessel who, once the boat is conscripted, absconds with his son, and his son’s friend, to Dunkirk; and, finally, Farrier (Tom Hardy) represents the Air as a pilot whose duty drives him to save his countrymen above all else. Each of these men deliver poignant, engaging performances. The quality of the performances is very significant given the absence of two typical things: dialogue to express desire and the physical presence of an enemy to instill fear. Instead, perhaps as a means of highlighting just how alone these individuals are in their mission for survival, each character primarily has only their actions to convey intent. While Whitehead and Rylance deliver exhaustive performances, Hardy’s forced minimalist performance still shines despite being only able to see his eyes as he sits in his plane’s cockpit, flying high above the carnage below, doing his best to release the pressure laid upon the scattering soldiers. Ticktickticktick.
Despite all the things that Nolan does well in Dunkirk, the overlay of timelines creates the only perceivable problem that prevents audiences from truly succumbing to the tidal wave of action and anxiety. Though the abrupt perception shifts from Tommy to Dawson to Farrier through each timeline enable the narrative to constantly up the ante, they throw the timelines horrendously out of sync. What Nolan’s accomplished with Dunkirk is no small feat, however, the audience witnessing how one event in one timeline plays out, only to see the action play out again after switching to another timeline, causes confusion that yanks audiences out of the experience. Had the transitions between the timelines converged been made more seamless, it would both reduce audience recalibration and the appearance of disjointedness within the narrative.
Believe all the hype you’ve heard about Dunkirk as Christopher Nolan redefines what a war picture can be. Not many writer/directors could pull off 106-minute climatic battle and make it as deeply profound and affecting as Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, or Hacksaw Ridge. Nolan harnesses the chaos of war and somehow makes it beautiful, all while audiences watch as time slowly ticks away in this historical reenactment of the Dunkirk evacuation. Though his use of multiple timelines does cause frequent moments of confusion in their overlay, this approach to storytelling is an engaging way to experience various moments from different viewpoints. On the whole, Dunkirk is Nolan at his peak and is an experience not to be missed by any audience. Ticktickticktick.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.