Christopher Nolan is sometimes accused of being a cold filmmaker. It's a side effect of his chilly aesthetic, although anyone who's seen "Interstellar" knows Nolan can crank up the emotion when he wants to. But a lack of sentimentality serves him well in "Dunkirk," the British director's stunningly visceral World War II epic. The film follows the crucial battle in which nearly 400,000 Allied troops were left stranded on the beaches of France after the soldiers were cornered by German forces.
This being Nolan, he's not content to tell this story in any sort of traditional manner. Returning to his love of fragmented narratives, Nolan follows the efforts to evacuate the troops from three different vantage points, and divides the plot into sections covering the rescue attempts from the air, land, and sea.
The three strands have their own overlapping timelines and Nolan jumps back and forth at will. The main focus is on a British soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who spends a week awaiting rescue from the beach. The second storyline tracks Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney), and his son's friend (Barry Keoghan), who spend a day crossing the English Channel as part of a civilian rescue effort. The final line follows two Royal Air Force fighter pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) over the course of an hour, as they attempt to pick off the German planes bombing the soldiers on the beach and ships below.
"Dunkirk" is a remarkable example of sustained tension and atmosphere, through sound design, music, and visuals, all executed with Nolan's expected technical precision. The Germans remain an invisible threat throughout the film, seemingly ready to attack from anywhere: shooting from an unseen distance, dropping bombs from above, or firing missiles from below. The result keeps the audience always on edge, waiting for the next blast of violence until it begins to feel like an unpredictable force of nature itself.
To call the film "intense" feels like an understatement. "Dunkirk" manages to cover a wide range of fears, from being shot to drowning, burning, and head trauma -- anyone with anxieties over any of those possibilities may be wise to steer clear.
There's a deliberate lack of characterization to those we end up following. They're men simply trying to make it out of their circumstances alive; there's little time for anything else.
The incessant ticking clock incorporated into Hans Zimmer's droning, unnerving score adds to the film's deafening soundscape. The result is overwhelming and absolutely terrifying, particularly if you're seeing the film in the preferred IMAX format (sadly, there are no 70mm film screenings locally). The nearly unbearable suspense works with and occasionally contrasts against the often beautiful, tactile photography of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, shooting almost entirely with IMAX cameras. Combining almost avant-garde cinematic technique with pure, raw spectacle, watching "Dunkirk" is unlike any other war film: it is an indelible experience that occasionally feels like its own act of survival.