Dunkirk Movie Review
My wife chews her cheek when she’s nervous. If she had watched Dunkirk instead of bailing on me at the last minute to go home, change into sweats and watch reruns of some sappy family drama, she would have chewed a hole straight to China. From the moment Christopher Nolan’s dazzling and different war drama flashes on screen to the moment it ends, Dunkirk refuses to relent, a near-nonstop action thriller that pulses with suspense and buzzes with a seemingly endless Hans Zimmer score.
Written and directed by Nolan, Dunkirk is a gorgeously shot and entrancing depiction of the Battle of Dunkirk, or at least the Evacuation of Dunkirk, in which 330,000 Allied soldiers were rescued from the French beach to regroup in England. The war movie is unlike any other war movie you’ll see: during its runtime of just an hour and 47 minutes (shorter than any of Nolan’s previous wide release productions), the movie opts for music over dialogue, atmosphere over characters.
The film isn’t speechless, but it could just have easily been—one of the main characters, if you can call him that, barely speaks the entire movie, and another—played by Tom Hardy—has just a few lines. But Dunkirk isn’t about individuals, even though Nolan focuses on a few largely nameless individuals to support his story—the movie is about an event, and Nolan brings the event to life with vivid shots of desolate beaches, forlorn, silent men and the relentless sense that things are going to get worse before they get better. And if the film itself is the character, the music, a masterful score if you’ve ever heard one, is how it speaks. Rarely if ever does Zimmer’s score rest; it is always there, humming, sawing and clawing its way into your soul.
Dunkirk is undeniably one long action scene, yet Nolan takes care to show the battle from many angles, and to avoid stimulation overload. The threat of death is always there, but even when it isn’t, the film is always building to the next moment of terror. Nolan explores the men on the beach, those on the water and even those in the sky—it’s a rare war movie where so many aspects of a battle are portrayed, each so expertly.
Where the movie falters just slightly is when Nolan does let his actors speak. The dialogue isn’t bad, but where Nolan is so calculating in the seemingly endless sequences where not a word is uttered, he’s sloppier when talking must be done. Dunkirk is such an intense, mesmerizing and unique war film, yet much of the dialogue is vanilla, as if it were ripped from a war movie from 50 years ago. Mark Rylance is fine but primarily speaks in short, catchy phrases, while Kenneth Branagh literally stands on a dock the entire movie explaining things as if he’s more of an observer than participant in the story.
It’s too early to say where Dunkirk will fall on the spectrum of war movies, but in just the hour since the credits have rolled, my respect for this sensational war movie—and just how unique it is—continues to rise. As for my wife, she hasn’t seen it yet, but when she does, the chewing will begin—and it will last long after the film ends.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.