From the nonlinear narrative structure of Memento to the playfully unconventional use of intercutting in Inception, Christopher Nolan has always been obsessed with deconstructing time. His latest effort, Dunkirk, is no exception—indeed, in its subtlety, it might just be his most accomplished exploration of the theme to date.
In interviews, Nolan has been quite upfront about the fact that he chose to divide the story into three distinct “acts”: Land, Air, and Sea. What he failed to mention was that these plot threads intersect and interweave at tonally or thematically appropriate moments, with little regard for their actual chronological order. By all rights, the resulting film should be a jumbled, confusing mess… but there are enough easily-recognizable visual “landmarks” to keep the viewer oriented, even as characters appear to teleport across great distances and the same events recur from different perspectives.
It certainly helps that the movie is refreshingly straightforward (especially following Interstellar’s somewhat convoluted philosophy and theoretical metaphysics). Nolan eschews excessive expository dialogue and extraneous characterization in order to emphasize the immediate plight of the stranded soldiers and the civilians called upon to rescue them. He can afford to use words sparingly, for there are few images more universal and potent than the elderly captain of a rickety yacht braving bullets and bombs to ferry his countrymen home; a lone fighter pilot racing against a rapidly dwindling fuel supply to provide air support; and 400,000 men waiting on a desolate beach for either salvation or oblivion, whichever comes first.
Thus, the director behind Inception and The Dark Knight Trilogy once again proves fully capable of delivering a crowd-pleasing Hollywood blockbuster without compromising his creative vision—only this time, his experimentation seems all the more effortless because he doesn’t call attention to it. Which, in turn, makes Dunkirk feel like the most mature and confident work in a string of bonafide modern masterpieces. Borden and Angier wish they could pull off such a dazzling magic trick.
[Originally written July 26, 2017.]