Long take: Nolan/Zimmer’s Dunkirk, consummate suspense flawed by red herrings

Hans Zimmer’s ominous Shepard tones come packaged with an hour’s worth of 70mm film stock and era-authentic props in Nolan’s long-awaited Dunkirk. Ticking in synchrony with the viewers’ pulse, Zimmer imposes quick and resonant orchestration that reverberates through the action in the cockpit and on the beachhead. There are debts owed to Hitchcock.

The opening scene is set by overlaid typescript. They are stranded, and hoping for deliverance, reads the text. They are looking for a miracle, looking for home. “Home”. Like that, we have a central motif—but is Home really what we’re waiting for? Swap out a consonant and you’ve got an answer: hope is the most elusive, and desired, element involved. Hope and hopelessness weigh on the minds of each character in spades, while they’re connection to home seems distant, unassuming, or trivial.

That the lack of exposition gave us protagonists-as-blank-slates was fine. Major historical events shouldn’t squander valuable $400/minute film stock just to do us the favour of explaining Harry Styles’ backstory or bother bringing us up to speed on the development of the European theatre. The only point worth making is made effortlessly: invasion is imminent.

The film prematurely reaches its heights in the opening ten-minute sequence that establishes the beachhead as the primary setting. Contesting with it is Tom Hardy’s mute send-off which has remained equally wedged in my memory.

Its nadir is more difficult to settle on. Zimmer’s sonic climax was botched, surely, by his crescendo (feat. high strings and synths) arriving flat after George’s accident. The disjunctive timeline, though ineffective, is not fatally flawed. The cheesy dialogue (queue Rylance on the fishing trawler) is a distraction made worse by the sparse scripting that surrounds it. Most of the time we need Rylance, Styles, and Whitehead to situate our emotional engagement and too often we’re left with interruptions—both comic and confused—that separate our identifying with them.

A stranded Cillian Murphy perched atop a sunken destroyer introduces the film’s true chronology by force. It becomes clear that what we’ve witnessed to that point is a mish-mash of non-linear events. This entire trope is unnecessary in advancing the plot (with the notable exception of the grounded French pilot waving to an airborne Tom Hardy, which was expertly conceived). Willful obscurity such as this is simply Nolan paying homage to Nolan. For the timelines to make sense the audience needs to realize that Murphy is the captain of the lifeboat that turns Whitehead and Styles away. The scene is too darkly lit for us to immediately recognize Murphy’s likeness, whose peaked seaman’s cap does little to help.

Nolan said that he “lost the forest for the trees” during post-production, and this became unsparingly evident on second viewing. Sloppy, spastic jump cuts, inconsistent light and colour grading, the water temperature changing from deep blue to murky grey from one shot to the next…are these technical flaws or artistically-motivated defects?

Hardy proves again that he can deliver while both masked and not. Rylance pitilessly saves the entire Sea timeline from being a complete wash and a vapid mishmash of emotional displacement. Styles and his British Army counterpart Fionn Whitehead prove themselves as performers capable of demanding scenes and commandeering what little emotional reserves we have left to deploy.

By convoluted means, Nolan depicts an otherwise very basic series of events as told from three converging perspectives, and any fair assessment needs to recognize that the whole movie after the opening scene is non-chronological. Playing with the timelines simply does too little for our sense of immersion. Neither do the unaddressed, or unjustified, plot holes. From the moment we’re dealt a traumatized Cillian Murphy, we’re made to sit through the remaining half of the movie with nagging regret that we didn’t pay close attention to him earlier. But after two viewings, there are still no immediate answers to the questions his character suggests. There’s also no answer as to why Nolan would throw in a needless, emotionally disrupting omission like this in the first place.

There is hope yet for Dunkirk. If anything, the movie is a testament to the power of film—that is, the spooled medium of film—as a capable and worth-while competitor to the green-screened blockbusters powered by AMD graphics cards and full-body haptic suits. Yes, film, the physical object, can still offer us the experience of pure immersion that rivals that of thousand-dollar virtual reality rigs.


[Final denunciations: George needs out, as do all the Sea sequences (really, the Mole and Air timelines are all that’s needed for the plot to sustain itself). How is his death, brought about by the weakest of off-screen throw-downs, to occur after we’re led to believe that these guys are emotionally indestructible machines, stone cold in the face of terror? Never has a movie so absorbing, yet so ineffectual, drawn me both in and away from it so often.]



Long take: Nolan/Zimmer’s Dunkirk, consummate suspense flawed by red herrings

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