That it's taken me almost a full week to process my reaction to Dunkirk should say a lot about the effect of the film. I'll usually watch a movie like this twice, once for the experience, a second time for the craft but my first thoughts after exiting the theater was that it was going to be a long time before I am prepared for that repeat viewing. No, I went in thinking this was going to be another war flick, another Nolan vehicle with some clever structure or idea that would engage my brain but about a third of the way into the story a thought surfaced like an enemy submarine in my mind: I am not prepared for this. And then it got worse. This is not to say it's bad or torturous, just that it's the most mature, relentless, grueling film that Chris Nolan has made so far, it fully establishes him as one of the preeminent writer/directors working today and if it doesn't snag him his Oscar in one of the two big categories I'm burning the whole building down to the ground.
Part of the reason I wasn't prepared for Dunkirk is that it's been a long time since I went to the theater to see an actual film film, as opposed to a Marvel movie or a popcorn summer comedy blah blah blah. I watch the heavier stuff at home where I can pause and control the pace or take a minute to distance myself from the ending of, let's say, Okja, that had me blubbering like a small child whose balloon had floated away. Instead, Nolan takes one of his greatest skills, building and compounding tension until it reaches some breathless, seemingly unending stress test, that he normally reserves for the second or third act of his movies and just does that from frame one of Dunkirk. The entire movie is an escalation of suspense that is a little difficult to watch at times as the existential nightmare relentlessly closes in on these laconic, defeated soldiers waiting on the beaches of France. Stylistically, this is going to be called a minimalist masterpiece in visual storytelling, deservedly so, but the real literal unseen champion of the film is also in the sound design which is fucking terrifying.
The other thing that left me unprepared was my familiarity with both the history of the event and with war films in general. How much suspense could a movie create if you already know how it's going to end? A lot, it turns out. Particularly if there is no grand or epic score from James Horner or John Williams to tell you what to feel and when. Dunkirk is unique in that sense, it hits none of the normal beats that a war movie will do. No one is in charge, not really. There's no funny guy, or tough guy, or a hero type. To be completely honest, there really is very little actual combat that takes place outside of the aerial dogfights and nary a word of exposition or personal history from any of the principle characters. We never actually see the German army, which I found incredibly refreshing, too many WWII films turn into Nazi fetishism. Instead, the audience is left with the grim realities of the world coming apart at the seams. Something I like to keep in mind whenever I start a new book or a show on the subject, is that we view the second World War from the perspective of the victors. But, at the time, success, and as in Dunkirk, even survival, was far from certain. Before the events of The Miracle of Dunkirk, as Nolan points out, it was truly the darkest hour of Western Civilization to this point in history. If a killing blow had been struck, as it almost certainly was about to be, England and the rest of the United Kingdom have no standing army to defend against invasion. If England falls there is no need for legitimate defenses on the Western Front and Nazi Germany turns the full brunt of its forces on Russia and, instead of being stopped within sight of Moscow's towers, rolls on through, potentially knocking their last remaining foe out of the fight, thus completely securing Fortress Europa. This is assuming the North African campaign takes on a lower priority since the oil fields needed by the Reich would be supplemented by the Caucuses regions in….
Anyway. After a few days I changed my mind, I will be seeing Dunkirk again in the near future, specifically, in the theater because that's what the movie is designed for. Nolan is a film purist, a snob in the right kind of way who is keeping the actual medium (as opposed to digital) alive, and who rails against Netflix's distribution model or lack thereof. His theater is a sacred place and this is perfectly true of his latest. It feels important and it was difficult trying to start a review of a movie that just needs to be experienced, because that's what it was, an experience. Afterwards, I felt like I'd been through some shit, as opposed to having just sat in a comfortable chair eating a soft baked pretzel with a beer. The best description and compliment I can give Dunkirk is that after a good movie, I can talk about it freely, I like selling people on something that deserves to be seen. A really good movie will make me think and I'll compose some pretentious think piece on the themes and concepts explored. But this film left me speechless. I was sobbing a little with all kinds of emotions while I tried to remember where I parked my car and I made it about five minutes up the road before I broke down into an ugly cry. And what followed was that remarkable release of emotions, of, again, that tension, and it was as cathartic of a feeling as I've had at the theater in a long time. After years of being coddled and tickled by summer blockbuster fare and tentpole franchises, it feels good to be reminded what cinema and Christopher Nolan are capable of. Is this my favorite film of his? No. I probably won't throw it on in the background while I fold laundry or nurse a hangover some day. Is this his best film so far? Almost certainly, and that's saying quite a bit. Just. Be prepared.