No soldier can fathom how their actions will be perceived back home. Concepts like duty, honor, and cowardice seem all the more hollow when hope is lost and death looms. This anxiety is central to Dunkirk, the existential World War II drama from Christopher Nolan. His latest is an intense film—more pulverizing than brutal—with a sense of scale and grandeur that eclipses most blockbuster entertainment. On top of the non-stop action, Nolan succeeds by acknowledging weak spots that have plagued his entire career. Instead of improving on these weaknesses, he crafted a film that has no need for them. This is a war film at its most economical and relentless.
About 50 miles of ocean separate the French town of Dunkirk from England, and the proximity between the two countries is like a grim joke. It is spring 1940, and after the Battle of France, hundreds of thousands are cut off at the beach. The brusque opening sequence sets the tone for what’s to follow: A handful of young men wander the empty streets, only to run away from gunfire. One of them attempts to fire back, while another drops his rifle, acknowledging the futility. Nolan films the Dunkirk evacuation from three primary vantages: soldiers on the beach, civilian boatmen who were recruited by the rescue effort, and English fighter pilots. The Germans are never seen, except in dramatic shadow.
The film is an assault of gunfire, explosions, and death. The score by frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer only adds to the heightened sense of fear: A recurring theme sounds like a ticking clock, and the instruments sometimes sound like the whine of a jet engine. Nolan’s script only adds to the feeling of sensory overload. Dunkirk has little dialogue, and virtually no character development whatsoever. Some reviews see parallels to Terrence Malick and The Thin Red Line, but Nolan seems just as influenced by macro-scale documentaries like John Ford’s The Battle of Midway and John Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro.
There are a few recognizable faces, including Harry Styles as a fresh-faced everyman, yet Nolan deigns to avoid backstory and false sentiment. Most of the lines are shouted, with a mix of anger and fear. The only actors with anything hinting at depth are Mark Rylance, as a grave-faced civilian, and Kenneth Branagh, as the leader of the evacuation effort. Many Nolan films suffer from half-baked characters and an overabundance of exposition. Dunkirk jettisons traditional characters altogether, in favor of a story told through action.
The color palette is a mix of wan, pitiless blues and greys. As usual, Nolan eschews computer-generated special effects, so the film has a tactile sense of realism. All the dogfights unfold with clarity: Nolan uses the horizon as a guiding principle, giving us the sense of what the pilots hope to accomplish with each maneuver (Tom Hardy plays the lead pilot, and like his role in The Dark Knight Rises, he spends most of the film wearing a mask.)
Still, the scenes on the beach are the most gut-wrenching: Bodies litter the shore, and each attempt to put men on boats seems more helpless than the last. In The Prestige, Nolan’s best film, one character remarks, “[Drowning] was agony,” so we hear and see many characters drown in Dunkirk. There are frequent, impressive shots of a capsized destroyer, with water filling every last possible crevice of the boat’s interior, and sheer suspense overshadows the technical wizardry involved.
Nolan also returns to the perception of time, another favorite theme of his. Unlike Interstellar’s mind-bending paradoxes, Dunkirk jumps around different timelines of the evacuation. You see one character reduced to an instinct-driven husk, only to see in a later scene how he began as a competent soldier. The cumulative goal is to suggest the psychological effect of such a protracted endeavor: Hardy’s pilot tries to accomplish the maximum good with limited time, while Styles and the other foot soldiers mix boredom with the constant stink of death. Their only hope is a wordless, gently evolving sense of camaraderie.
Since the Dunkirk evacuation was before the United States’ involvement in the war, English officers were keenly aware of the cost of failure. The soldiers were more bewildered: They found themselves in a modern battle, with little context to comprehend death from above. Dunkirk avoids military strategy and politics, at least until its final minutes. A character recites Winston Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches” address. Churchill couldn’t have known that his speech would have a ripple effect, creating an international sense of good and evil. By staying in the moment, Dunkirk is about how England looked toward that beach and saw themselves. Survival is not victory, but it can set an example.
Dunkirk opens Friday in theaters everywhere.