“Dover?” “Dorset.” The boat goes past and we see that its name is Moonstone. Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone tells a relatively straightforward story in a complicated way, or establishes a mystery and leads the reader to so many red herrings that they give up thinking that they could deduce the answer through paying attention to evidence-finding. For Collins, as it would be for Chandler, the telling of the thing is infinitely more significant than any answers that might be drawn from its scenery and character sketches. And for Collins, as with Chandler, we read their works for the joy that the telling brings us rather than the satisfaction of where we end up. Fans of Nolan appreciate the way that he tells a story; they liken his films to puzzles. Nolan’s detractors find that if they are puzzles, then they have pieces missing or are not particularly well thought out (or visually interesting) any way. Collins could tell a story in a straightforward way and was skilled enough to experiment, while Nolan tends to struggle with telling even the simplest stories. With Dunkirk, the story is simple and its conclusion is history. Unlike Nolan’s other works, a Collins-esque shifting of time and perspective is employed not for the sake of problem-solving cleverness, but to achieve a sort of pure terror and pure cinema beyond the narrative at hand.
The trailer features the disembodied ticking of a clock, and this ghost clock makes it into the film as well. This ticking as well as the first leaps in narrative-perspective have the viewer considering whether the two things have been combined so as to alert us to the clockwork tidiness of this narrative conceit, or as a way of manipulating the viewer’s heartbeat such that they, like the characters, feel perpetually out of time. Nolan has always desired clockwork efficiency in his films, hence his characters’ laughably non-human expository dialogue and jarring geographical rifts, but his films tend to achieve the opposite. In Dunkirk the pieces do not fit, because there is no clever ‘moment’ where these stories overlap due to things actioned by each thread’s protagonist. We search for ways that they might overlap as the film plays out, but in true Collins fashion we are denied seeing the pieces fit. Nolan goes against what we expect of Nolan and refuses to turn war into a narrative puzzle. Without the clock signalling clockwork, and without the narrative threads signifying puzzles, we are made to feel hopeless and out of time, hopeful ‘against all odds’, and heroic against the clock. For the most part jumping from hopelessness to hope to dogfights alleviates the pressure of caring too much within any given thread, and has the ‘war is hell’ film playing out but framed by traditional depictions of heroism. Whether this is a cop-out or a legitimately humanistic move is down to each viewer. It is possibly both, particularly with this alleviative quality, but at times Nolan uses this fragmentation to arrive at something more distressing than a single perspective could offer, repeating the imagery of a bombed minesweeper for a constantly replayed trauma reminiscent of the final act of Man of Steel.
When Nolan loses the humanism and heroics of ‘The Sea’ and ‘The Air’ he does so by cutting so ruthlessly between these and ‘The Mole’ that we are given an abstracted kind of chaos that the Nolan of The Dark Knight could only have dreamed of. The desire was there in The Dark Knight but the director was too inept to stage simple cause and effect in his films, much less convince us that his film’s messiness was in any way intentional. In Dunkirk, there is no mistaking that he has become a competent conductor of images. We can see him with his baton believing that he is conducting a Romantic symphony, but he, editor Lee Smith, and Hans Zimmer know only assault. Dunkirk reaches heights where it is a thrash metal approximation of the idea of Shostakovich; a confusing symphony of pain that physically whitens knuckles and has the viewer’s head spinning.
This assault begins on a tangible scale- the first bomb we see dumps sand on Tommy, and the second dumps water. From this we know what we are in for- an elemental, rather than human flogging. The tallness of the IMAX frame works for the abstractions in the film as Nolan’s figurative compositions tend toward peculiar or inexplicably awful– here they are as ill thought out as ever but the subject of the frame has changed, and hand-held cameras convince us that it’s all supposed to look spontaneous any way. Many scenes remain which remind us that Nolan is attempting yet again to make Good Serious Cinema, and critical reaction once again says he’s done it, but the film’s obnoxious merits sit away from this. Those of us who do not like his films are met with something different here, and while it is tempting to call his attempts at pure cinema non-Nolan, it seems that he achieves this through doubling down on everything Nolan: Zimmer’s self-parodying intrusive scoring, Smith’s nonsensical shot-by-shot, perspective-by-perspective edits (the anti-Cloud Atlas), Nolan’s Serious Artist anxiety through an unusual belief in Big is Better. They are red-faced and intoxicated in their enthusiasm for what they are doing, and their belief in each other, and what they have produced is an unbridled chaos which for the first time has been stoked by a sense, ironically, of control.
These are some merits which can be found in a film with as many issues as one is willing to notice, or as is the case with the majority of viewers, ignore, but what is sad is that the film’s first 20-30 minutes belong to a work which does not need to be justified with ‘so loud it’s transcendently loud’ (which might be the reason I prefer it to almost everything else he’s made?). The dialogue-free early scenes do not feel as though they are working to establish the stakes of the film, or to provide spatial and human context for its future noise symphony, but like an uncomfortable, delicate film that will variously float and crash down without any logic that can be given to the viewer. Tommy grips a leaflet trailing down from the sky and it is the only kind of of touch that we get in the film. Of course people hold onto ladders and climb into boats, but they become abstracted into ideas of life and death rather than being people holding onto and climbing into things. And so early on there is this one moment where the elements are not the embodiment of a Hans Zimmer ‘drop’, and a person is just a person. This is a feat- in the past there has never been touch in Nolan’s films because they have never been grounded anywhere.
Shortly after this Tommy is made to run down the street, climb a fence, and duck behind something, and this is the most spatially coherent thing Nolan has ever filmed. This tight coherence is riveting as we’re glued just behind and around him at close proximity, and the streets and gardens feel labyrinthine. He walks out onto the beach and the frame empties out and we feel for a split-second as though we can breathe again. This feeling does not last long for we notice that there are meticulously kept lines of soldiers from the dunes to the sea, facing forwards, out to the grey horizon. Pictured in mock-Western widescreen is this performance and belief in order, and when the beach is bombed everyone scrambles away before returning to the well-ordered lines, unlucky bodies just off to the side. It is pointedly a glitch in an artificial intelligence. We are still with Tommy who does not know where he is supposed to be, or even if he is supposed to be. It sounds prosaic, but this is all evocative of when you forget to adjust your clock for daylight savings and arrive at school late and you see everything appearing as it should, but minus you, and so neither you nor it seem right at all. It feels as though you have walked into another dimension.
This small-scale discomfort within a large-scale illogical system is powerful, but of course those involved forfeit it on the path of loud spectacle. In a review for The Guardian Andrew Pulver rightly shrugs off critics’ obsession with finding their next Kubrick (as tediously persistent as rock critics still trying to find ‘the next Dylan’ in anyone with a guitar), agreeing with Peter Bradshaw that where Kubrick had the ability to know when to stand by a decision, Nolan opts for big announcements over that other director’s sense of disquiet. Pulver then goes on to compare Dunkirk to the great pacifist film Paths of Glory. I am not a big fan of Kubrick, but this comparison is distressing. It might well be the Paths of Glory of the Saving Private Ryan ‘great war film’ canon, but that is not saying much. The noise symphony that Nolan et al. manage to stir is not war any more, and any claims to it being ‘like war’ are outlandish- this is big shouty cinema from mainstream cinema’s second loudest voice, and its formal achievements should be quickly severed from everything outside of the film object. This is the only possible way to enjoy the film, and that is because it is only half as bad as the alternative (it is still making spectacle of suffering, and makes us as irresponsible as any of art’s smug formalists). There is a bold, disquieting short-film at the start of Dunkirk, and there is a scene with a newspaper two hours later which subverts the patriotic voiceover and wraps that thread up. This suggests that on a level Nolan knows that, looking at his idols and then at himself, he’s not quite there yet. It is undoubtedly a film to watch at an IMAX theatre, but that’s because it is in the IMAX that the film is most spectacular. It is not a ‘classic’- I would dispute that it is even a war videogame. Once the spectacle clears it’s just noise.