‘Dunkirk’ Is Nonstop Intensity That Will Leave You Physically Exhausted

After you see Dunkirk, you will need something to calm yourself down. I made a joke that I needed a Quaalude, but I really don’t know much about Quaaludes other than what I learned while watching The Wolf of Wall Street. But Dunkirk isn’t quite like anything I’ve seen before. It’s certainly something to behold, even though there are times during the film that you forget to do things normal like breathe. It is, no kidding, a non-stop barrage of war imagery that will leave you physically exhausted after it ends.

Christopher Nolan isn’t here so a viewer can catch his or her breath during Dunkirk, or slow down for any kind of character development. His sole motivation seems to be to put you into the World War II evacuation of Dunkirk – or at least as close as humanly possible via film. When bullets are fired (oh, this happens a lot) the sound is ear piercing. When a fighter plane cranks up its engine to do an evasive maneuver, it’s like that engine is right underneath your seat. (I should mention I saw Dunkirk in 70mm IMAX, which doesn’t so much submerse a person into the experience as much as it commands you to pay attention. I think it almost tricks a person into believing his or her life might be in danger.)

What Nolan does is tell the story of the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk – where around 400,000 Allied troops were cut off and surrounded by German forces then doomed to just wait on a beach as German planes dropped bomb after bomb. Nolan portrays this across three separate timelines, and not knowing this beforehand, it took me a few minutes to catch on.

The story of the ground troops – this is where we spend the most time with Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles, who also sings in his spare time) – takes place over one week. The story of a civilian (Mark Rylance) and two young men (Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan), who sail across the English Channel to rescue anyone who might fit on their boat, takes place over one day. And the story of the Royal Air Force pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) takes place over the course of one hour. The film cuts back and forth between these three timelines, basically at Nolan’s whim, to create a film that has literally no down time.

If we just concentrated on the soldiers on the beach over a period of a week, yeah, there’d probably be some time to get to know these people through their conversations. But right when any other film might have a scene like that, Nolan cuts to the air battle happening a week later. And somehow all three of these timelines eventually converge. We see some events happen more than once, from different perspectives. It’s a minor miracle this movie works at all, let alone is a directing and editing masterpiece.

Dunkirk feels like the movie Christopher Nolan was preparing us for when he made Inception and Interstellar. Remember how time moved differently for those in the deeper dream in the former? And the same thing in the latter if characters were on the planet where a few minutes on the surface turned into years for the person left behind in orbit? Remember how these concepts were explained to us over and over again? Well, Nolan does the same thing in Dunkirk only there’s very little explanation. If asked about his unique, non-linear storytelling technique in Dunkirk, I could see Nolan replying, “Why would I need to explain this yet again? Didn’t you see Inception?”

But, no, we don’t get to learn much, or anything really, about the characters. (I am trusting IMDb for the character names, because I don’t really remember any name being mentioned other than a couple.) Which is certainly the intention. But about halfway through Dunkirk, I started to get a little numb to the concept of these soldiers dying. I suspect this, too, is by design. With so much carnage happening, it’s hard to care much about anything except your own survival.

After our screening, there was a group of teen girls huddled outside the AMC Lincoln Square on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, asking anyone who had just seen Dunkirk about Harry Styles’ performance – and, more specifically if Mr. Styles’ character perished or not. I am immensely curious what this group will think of Dunkirk because it’s not really an actor-driven film. Even though the performances are all great (including Mr. Styles’), we barely get to know any of these people. Styles shows up and is absolutely terrified for his life, like pretty much everyone one else in this movie. But this certainly isn’t a “Harry Styles movie” or a “Tom Hardy movie.” Instead, it’s an experience. And it’s a theatrical experience unlike pretty much anything I’ve seen before. It’s non-stop intensity that will both exhaust a viewer and make one grateful that we didn’t actually have to live through that hell.

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