I’m going to go ahead and apologize now: similar to every other review you’ll read for Dunkirk, mine too is going to be drowning in words like tension and suspense. So… sorry, not sorry. There really is no other way to describe Christopher Nolan’s newest film.
For those who don’t know, Dunkirk centers around the retreat of Allied forces as Germany aggressively encroached into France, pinning the retreating soldiers against the sea as they waited for rescue from across the water. This brief explanation is all you need to know going into the film, as this is all the opening exposition gives you. The rest is all about feeling.
From minute one, Dunkirk is easily one of the most stressful movies I’ve ever seen. The sound design makes sure of it. Like the pressure in the bowels of our main focal point on the beach (you can’t start a movie with a subplot involving our main character not being given the time to poop and expect me to not talk about it. At least I restrained myself from saying fecal point.), the tension builds and builds with each passing moment, never leaving room to breathe. The best way I can explain it is by asking you to imagine a movie out at sea in which the Jaws theme plays the entire time, using only the quickest tempo. Awful for migraines, but great for building anxiety.
With the sound editing and mixing being as important as it is, the narrative really takes a back seat. There are still numerous stories weaving together, but Dunkirk puts aside complex plotlines, instead going for a simple story of survival. That’s it. There are still scenes of aerial combat between fighter jets and bombers trapping soldiers within the bowels of the sinking ships that were supposed to be their salvation, but even then the focus is never solely on the action and explosions, everything always comes back to the desperation of the characters. Everything always comes back to building tension and keeping the movie clambering forward.
To put it simply, Dunkirk is exhausting. It is also challenging to understand at times. The editing plays tricks on you when bouncing between timelines and characters early on in the movie, dialogue often falls below the sound effects and music when it comes to mixing (as if the accents and unfamiliar terms didn’t put enough strain on my ability to understand already), and questions are raised by certain plot points because I am used to the Hollywood way of presenting war, and storytelling in general, as opposed to the realities of WWII (e.g. someone drowning unceremoniously with the water’s surface right there, or someone not ejecting from a plane because it turns out this was actually really dangerous to do back then). My fiance may of had to hold my hand and explain some of these things to me because Dunkirk wasn’t willing to do just that. It doesn’t over explain, and it doesn’t waste time on anything because there isn’t any time to. It just drops you into the thick of it and asks you to survive.