In considering the creative foundation of any of Christopher Nolan’s most popular films, I’m reminded of the mantra of one Dave Schmerz, Danny DeVito’s film professor character in the movie Wiener-Dog: You’ve got to have your “What if?" What if you could travel into people’s dreams? What if an amnesiac tried to solve a murder? What if you had a secret twin? Not one to rest on the laurels of an intellectually rich idea alone, Nolan has made a career out of turning these premises into multi-tiered Rube Goldberg machines, mining satisfaction out of their complicated execution where other directors might only yield frustration.
But the usual game of Mouse Trap is not underway in Nolan’s latest venture, in which we find little of the conceptual complexity that has defined his past endeavors as sufficiently Nolanesque. On the one hand, it should have been clear from the get-go that Dunkirk wouldn’t be like its big screen brethren, lacking the “What if?” launching point upon which everything between Memento and Interstellar was premised. But it’s another thing to watch in real time as this lot’s mechanical mind plays willingly in such straightforward strata.
In fact, it’s almost as though Nolan is going out of his way to eschew a career-long tradition of overthinking in favor of as base and guttural a story—or, really, several separate stories—as he can possibly find within himself. Passing up the opportunity, as offered by his latest genre, to explore the realm of military strategy, Nolan instead sets his sights on survival, both mortal and spiritual. Our entryway into the film is a young British soldier (Fionn Whitehead)—essentially nameless and damn near wordless—who evades Nazi snipers and air strikes in pursuit of sanctuary aboard one of the Allied ships leaving from the shores of Dunkirk, France.
Over the course of his piece of the picture, Whitehead’s baby-faced private evades bullets, dive bombers, merciless bureaucracy, the erratic tide, and the scorn of his contemporaries for standing up for a suspected interloper. Though we get to know virtually nothing about Whitehead’s character, there is a deliberate intimacy that comes along with watching him strive to save his own skin and that of new friends and complete strangers.
A different, somewhat more “sophisticated” story takes place across the English Channel, which brings good Samaritan Mark Rylance’s civilian boat from Great Britain to Dunkirk with aid for his country’s men in uniform. Along for the ride are Rylance’s firecracker son (Tom Glynn-Carney), his sweet-natured young friend (Barry Keoghan), and, eventually, a shell-shocked military pilot who is torn from the skies in battle (Cillian Murphy). Though wordier, and perhaps even more traditionally plot-heavy than Whitehead’s, Rylance and company’s chapter is nevertheless as rudimentary in its motives and ideas—theirs too is a story about little else than surviving the terrors of war, not only as bodies but as people.
In absence of his usual brand of intellectual complexity, Nolan instead packs each of his uncharacteristically minimalistic tales with a career-best effort in emotional fortuity. Undercutting this, however, is the film’s inability to afford more time or consideration to any of the aforesaid characters. While the less-is-more approach does work well for sideline highlights like Kenneth Branagh’s pier-side commander (who does some tremendous hat-acting in this picture) and Tom Hardy’s dire-straits-adjacent fighter pilot, you get the sense that Whitehead, Rylance, and Murphy, all of whom aim to strike you at the heart and gut, could benefit from an even closer look.
That said, there's little that can rival the dynamism and treachery of some of Nolan's more harrowing war scenes--Dunkirk may be light on terrestrial battle, but it is hardly lacking in mortal dangers, the lot of which Nolan executes with profound patience and economy. That we keep so up-close-and-personal with the boys on the ground is what helps to make these terrors so striking, though one wonders just how much more powerful they'd be if the director let himself just go a few yards further in devoting his picture to the characters in question.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Images: Warner Bros.
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor for Nerdist. Find Michael on Twitter at @micarbeiter.