There’s not another director today making movies the way Christopher Nolan makes movies.
The man doesn’t just write a story and then shoot it. He crafts a visceral experience where the “way” you see and hear and “experience” the movie is equally as important as the traditional “what” you see and hear.
On more than one occasion Nolan has created movies that showed little beholding to conventional motion picture concepts like space and time. That sounds a bit overblown maybe, but it’s not: Most movies don’t even think about messing with their own internal chronology. Some two hour movies take place over the course of one dinner date, some take place over a ninety year life, but for the most part the things that happen in the movie happen along a very liner point-A to point-B to point-C structure. Even movies that break the mold, like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, do so in such a way that the audience is able to follow along easily with what is happening and when, and there are still very clearly defined mini-journeys from mini-point-A to mini-point-B; there are small liner storylines happening that you can follow once you get the hang of it.
Nolan’s movies have often thrown linearity out the window and instead put the audience in a disorienting situation where they’re never quite sure when or where something is happening, at least not on the first viewing. It’s like how pilots talk about “the graveyard spiral” which describes the dangers of flying at night without properly reading your instruments; an untrained pilot can lose all sense of orientation, to the point where he could be flying straight into the ocean and not even realize it until it’s too late.
Nolan loves throwing his audiences in a cinematic-graveyard spiral, sending them scenes and images without a linear orientation. He disorients his audience so that they can’t follow the story very easily, but you never grow frustrated because what you see and hear has been finely-tuned from script to shoot to make you kind of instinctively and subconsciously able to follow along, even if on a conscious level you can’t.
Consider the man’s first major motion picture, Memento, where the scenes shown in color happen in reverse, with the last scene of the story happening in the beginning of the movie, and the scenes in black-and-white happen in traditional forward progression…albeit with heavy flashback. Just typing it is disorienting and that’s the point; the audience is never able to be comfortable enough to unravel the secrets of the story until he is ready to reveal them.
With The Prestige (arguably the man’s greatest work) he told a story between two characters told from four perspectives: the real-time events happening to each man, and the (unreliable and at least partially-fabricated) recollections of each man happening in flashbacks. It’s a mind-twisting masterpiece, in part because the movie messes with your sense of where and when everything is happening in the movie.
Even more by-the-book films, like the Dark Knight series employ “linear disregard.” The Dark Knight Rises features multiple time jumps (forward and back and forward again) without any on-screen indicator, like a “six months later…” popping up on the screen. The audience is left always-slightly-off-kilter, as though the author of the picture hates letting the crowd get too comfortable.
Let’s not even get into Inception…or, for that matter, Interstellar, a movie whose climax is a time-travel paradox that is basically impossible—by design—to entirely unravel.
After all of those movies messed with our heads, Nolan announced his next film would be, for the first time in his career, based on a true story: The World War II “Battle” of Dunkirk. It seemed like such a radical departure for the director, and if that’s what you think going into the film, buckle up and prepare to be rightly disoriented. Once again Nolan just unravels the space-time continuum for kicks and giggles.
Dunkirk is presented like a nightmare.
In a way that’s fitting as the movie is not meant to romanticize war, but instead spotlight the horrors of it: the tight spaces, the sudden danger, the cold brutality, the quiet moments of peace where you should take advantage and relax but you can’t because you know at any moment it could all be yanked away, the human instinct to survive even if that means doing evil things. It’s all here, but true to Nolan’s style, it’s the way that intensity is presented that elevates it to another level. Plenty of movies have used traditional methods to illustrate the horrors of war (Saving Private Ryan holds the gold medal in that regard) but Nolan wants the audience to feel the disorienting nature of being in an intense wartime situation.
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There are three stories told in Dunkirk: one on land, one on sea and one on air.
The hook, and the reason the film is disorienting like a nightmare, is that the three settings tell their story over different stretches of time. The events on the beaches of Dunkirk, where 300,000 soldiers look for rescue to return them to England’s shores (roughly fifty miles away) take place over the course of a week. The events on the sea, as small civilian ships are commissioned to bring the soldiers back, take place over the course of a day. And the events in the air, as three Royal Air Force fighters contend with German Luftwaffe, take place over the course of an hour.
Ordinarily, the film would be laid out in a linear fashion, starting with the dangers on the beach, as German forces have the land entirely sealed off, having driven the British and French soldiers out into the open to be mowed down by bombers from above; “like fish in a barrel” one of the British officers observe. After suffering along with a great and understated (which is why it’s great) Kenneth Branagh on the beach, we’d then be introduced to Mark Rylance who captains a personal yacht to the warzone in order to rescue as many as his little ship can carry. Along the way he and his sons would meet Cillian Murphy, a seaman brought down by a German U-boat and suffering from shellshock. And then, right as things get really harrowing, as the grounded troops come under threat of bombers, we’d meet Tom Hardy and his RAF pilots, who swoop in to save the day.
Told traditionally the movie still would have been great, but Nolan doesn’t do traditional. He just starts each of the three stories right off the bat. We meet Branagh, Rylance and Hardy in the opening minute, despite the fact that their scenes happen days apart from each other. In the end, the three storylines converge in a climax that is tense and triumphant and will have you holding your breath all the way through.
When it’s over and some soldiers have returned home, they board a train and, for the first time in weeks, are able, finally, to rest. It’s a moment of relief after so much intensity. Watching the soldiers sleep, for the audience feels, ironically, like waking up from the bad dream that the characters had just lived through.
Nonetheless, it’s the best bad dream I’ve ever had.
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On the technical side, the movie simply must be seen in theaters. There’s not another director working today who is more committed than Christopher Nolan at preserving the unique possibilities that “going to the cinema” affords. As great as home-theater set-ups are these days, there’s simply no match for a well-done cinema experience. The rest of Hollywood keeps churning out endless remakes, reboots and sequels, all the while slapping gimmicks like 3D onto them, all in a vain effort to get the fewer movie-goers there are paying more to make up the difference.
Meanwhile Chris Nolan is out here just making movies. He’s making these massive IMAX spectacles, with minimal dialogue, relentless music and such a visceral experience in the way its shot and edited that you just feel compelled to see his works of art the biggest screen possible.
The man is saving Hollywood, with or without any help from the rest of Hollywood.
10/10 – Dunkirk is the first movie in a long time that you can not afford to wait for home-video to see. It must be experienced on the biggest screen with the best audio available. If you have to drive an hour out of the way to see it as it was meant to be seen, do it.
It’s another masterpiece from the best director working today.