‘Dunkirk’ Marks Christopher Nolan’s Final Break With His Early Mindf*ck Shtick

When I first became aware of Christopher Nolan, it was around 2000, as the director of that year’s most buzzed about indie mindf*ck, Memento. That was a film like we’d never seen — Guy Pearce covered in tattoos, playing a vengeance-obsessed widower who couldn’t form new memories; Joey Pants as the weaselly sidekick who might be a villain (his perfect role); Nolan using voiceover to flip a chase sequence mid-course. “Am I chasing him? …Nope, he’s chasing me.”

Weird that a guy who would eventually be accused of being humorless would introduce himself to the world with a scene so wry, isn’t it?

It’s probably fair to call Memento a gimmick movie, but it was damned good gimmick. And anyway, the fastest way to success when you’re a relative unknown is to show that you have 1. an identifiable style 2. that people like 3. that isn’t too hard for them to wrap their brains around. In other words, when you’re first starting out, it’s good to have a shtick. M. Night Shyamalan was the twist ending guy, Bobcat Goldthwait was the growly-voiced comedian, and Christopher Nolan, for all intents and purposes, was the mindf*ck guy.

He would be that for at least the next decade. Nolan made movies with plots that unrolled non-linearly, usually fractually, going forwards and backwards in time to eventually create a kind of infinity loop. This phase of his career arguably peaked with Inception, when Nolan’s meta-style was so easily imitated that it basically became a meme, bringing “snow level” and “braaaaaahm” into common usage. The film wasn’t Nolan doing something new; more the crystallization of Nolan doing what he’d always done. Even the original Memento poster looks like an Inception meme:

(sidenote for This Week In Posters readers: was this the poster that started the diagonal poster trend?)

Meanwhile, while we were busy watching him claim the mindf*ck mantel, a lesser-noticed aspect of his evolution was that he was gradually upgrading in his cinematography and set piece choreography. Early in his career, especially noticeable in Batman Begins and Insomnia, Nolan seemed to be great at everything except shooting a coherent fight sequence. The fights in Batman Begins seem to have been cobbled together using a thousand claustrophobic shots of characters’ blurry backs, ears, shoulders, lapels, etc. set to bang boom pow sound effects.

Frankly it was terrible, and it was a good thing Nolan was so good at keeping us distracted with fractal plotting. But by the time The Dark Knight Rises came out (or at least, by the time it hit DVD — most people were still so amped on The Dark Knight that they only realized the follow-up kind of sucked a few months after they’d seen it), it seemed fairly clear to everyone that his signature style of relentless narrative had gotten stale. The trouble with a shtick is that people tend to lose interest the minute they think they can define it. Shticks tend to pop and fade, with nothing left to discover on return visit.

Luckily Nolan had been getting progressively better as a visual filmmaker all along, until Interstellar, when his status as “Mindf*ck Guy” was arguably eclipsed by his status as “Large Format Majesty Guy.”

How you take Interstellar sort of depends on whether you remember it more for its visual impact (the giant wave planet!) or its messy final act (“The Hathaway Deception”). Personally I tend to give filmmakers more leeway for narrative messiness when it seems to have been a result of them exploring the big questions until it drives them a little crazy (see also: Snowpiercer). Nolan took a massive swing with Interstellar, it was admirable.

With Dunkirk, Nolan’s transition feels complete. Of all the things you could say about it, the last two are that it’s confusing or narratively complex. Not only does it not rely on a complicated narrative, there’s barely any dialogue. It consists almost entirely of awe-inspiring imagery and visual tension, almost to the detriment of everything else. The guy who once seemed like he could shoot everything but a coherent action sequence has filmed what’s essentially a two-hour action sequence. It’s Nolan’s final break from the expectations of being “The Mindf*ck Guy.” Perhaps too slick to give up gimmicks entirely (maybe we’ll call them “angles,” which is what you call a gimmick that you like) Dunkirk‘s gimmick is that it has no gimmick.

Depicting the Dunkirk evacuation at the beginning of the second World War, when the Germans had the French and English armies surrounded on a tiny beach (and then halted their advance, for reasons that have been debated ever since), the film is told not quite linearly but pretty close, from three perspectives — land (soldiers waiting to be evacuated from a long breakwater called “the mole,” mostly from the perspective of two soldiers played by Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard, who eventually meet up with Harry Styles and a few others), sea (a pleasure yacht requisitioned for emergency evacuation — captained by Mark Rylance’s character, crewed by his teenage son and his son’s friend), and air (a detachment of British fighters led by Tom Hardy). The land sequence covers a week, the sea a day, the air an hour, cross-cut between the three — all announced through title cards, such that it doesn’t feel like twists or trickery.

If you watch earlier Nolan movies, especially Batman Begins, action scenes were characterized by a thousand cuts, almost as if he was using the disjointed editing itself to create the chaotic confusion he was hoping to evoke. It was impressionistic but results-oriented — we’d see and hear the outcome of a punch but not the punch itself. Even Insomnia, which otherwise seemed like a sumptuous visual spectacle before we realized that that would become Christopher Nolan’s “thing,” still reverted to that blur-cut-blur-cut-thump-thump-blur-cut-blur style every time there were stunts involved.

Nolan signals that he’s doing something different, pretty much the reverse of that early style, in Dunkirk‘s first five minutes. Its first memorable shot is of Fionn Whitehead’s character (unsubtly named “Tommy” according to IMDB, though I don’t remember ever hearing it during the movie), having narrowly made it through town alive, arriving to the beach where thousands of other soldiers are already queued awaiting evacuation. In a wide shot of Tommy with the column of soldiers framed behind him, a German dive bomber flies directly towards the camera as the soldiers hit the deck. With no cuts, the bombs explode in succession, going furthest to closest — BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. — sending up showers of sand and presumably bodies, the final bomb landing just far enough away from Tommy to cover him with sand but leave him otherwise unhurt. Unlike the facile, glib takeaway from Nolan’s earlier stuff — the visuals are chaotic because violence is chaotic, you see — this new method emphasizes the brutal but simple math of warfare. Dunkirk is a logistical problem with human stakes. And we don’t just see it, we feel it, from the perspective of the people who were the stakes. Which is not only a more nuanced emotional poetry than “violence is chaotic,” it’s a hell of a lot more fun to watch.

With almost no blood and not a single visible German, Dunkirk is probably the best a World War II battle has ever looked on screen, and it’d be worth it for that alone. The flip side of that is that it almost is that alone, by design. It’s all about carefully built tension and the struggle to survive. Its depiction of the battle (episode?) hews pretty close to the “Dunkirk spirit” mythos that the British have been touting ever since. “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them” and so forth. At one point, Kenneth Branagh’s character looks out at a flotilla full of requisitioned pleasure craft pouring over the horizon and slowly pulls away his binoculars. “What’s that?” asks an underling. “It’s home,” Branagh says, and smiles.

Does it border on schmaltz? Sure. It’s Brits the way they like to see themselves, the same way Saving Private Ryan is Americans the way we like to see ourselves. And it’s fine, because the anecdotes are chosen well enough that they don’t have to massage the facts too much, and films have always been better at stirring propaganda than sober analysis anyway.

And like Saving Private Ryan, the main knock on Dunkirk is more a technical one. Which is weird to say because it’s one of the most visually monumental films I’ve ever seen. But like Saving Private Ryan, whose gimmicky first-person beach landing sequence, which, while entirely tolerable in its original context, may in retrospect have helped usher in the shaky-cam era (“it’s shaky because violence is chaotic!”), Dunkirk does a similar thing with audio. Maybe 40 percent of the dialogue is intelligible, muddled by war sounds and Hans Zimmer’s deafening score. Surely the Nolan defenders would scream “the movie’s dialogue is muddled because dialogue in life is muddled!”, but how many times do have to hear that explanation? Which by the way was painfully obvious already? It’s the worst kind of choice because it’s not even readily apparent that it is a choice (if it weren’t a Christopher Nolan movie we’d just assume it was a bad mix), and anyway Hans Zimmer isn’t blaring during real-life battle scenes so spare me with the realism dodge.

Regardless, the weird mixing choice only underscores the point that Dunkirk‘s words don’t really matter, just like Tom Hardy has proved over and over that we don’t really need to understand anything he’s saying in order to be emotionally invested in his story. Dunkirk is the Tom Hardy of movies. It’s so beautiful that it doesn’t matter if it’s occasionally saying something slightly schmaltzy in a language you can only half understand. It’s also a milestone in Christopher Nolan’s career, and one that I’m ready to welcome with open arms.

Vince Mancini writes a lot, and also does email and Twitter.