Christopher Nolan's 'Dunkirk' Is a WWII Movie That'll Scare the Hell Out of You

dunkirk review
Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures
Note: This article contains some mild spoilers for Dunkirk.

Dunkirk is an epic film set during wartime, but it is not an "epic war film." A movie needs to tick a number of boxes for the label to apply: Generals need to move miniature tanks around a table map; we need to see wide-eyed kids evolving into men, with the heartiest grunt reduced to cinders by the brutality and indignity of battle; we need to see wives and mothers torn up with worry (but still finding the strength to carry on).

Not one of those clichés are found in Dunkirk, the latest film from The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, and this absence is what makes it so remarkable. Dunkirk isn't a war movie, even as it lifts from documentation of the 1940 Battle of Dunkirk. No, Nolan has made a horror movie, and the sly tweak of genre conventions, as well as its ballyhooed large-format image capture and (in some theaters) projection elevates an extremely thin plot into a fervent portrayal rumination on mortal peril.

dunkirk Fionn Whitehead
Warner Bros. Pictures

In Catch-22, Joseph Heller's lead character Yossarian begs to stop flying because "they're trying to kill me." His comrade contends, "They're trying to kill everyone." Yossarian asks, "What difference does that make?"

He's technically not wrong, and, while quite different in tone to Heller's satire, Nolan's film similarly extracts and examines the essence of "what is happening now" and disregards any wider geopolitical context. Enemies are out to get our principal character (Fionn Whitehead's Tommy), and while we know it's the German Luftwaffe, they could just as easily be vampires or harpies.

The first killings come with nightmare logic. While scrounging for sustenance in an abandoned seaside village, unseen snipers gun down everyone to Tommy's left and right. All Tommy wants to do is take care of base needs: a drink of water and someplace private to move his bowels. He's unable to find relief (have you ever wanted to do something similar in a dream?) and is interrupted by the intrusion of pure terror. He ends up on a beach, where he silently watches as random death rains down on him from above.

He hits the sand as bombs fall. There's no point in moving -- he can only hope the shells stop before they reach him. The blasts summon bodies from Earth straight up in the air like you might expect from a science-fiction tractor beam, making Dunkirk less reminiscent of the gory first chapter in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan than the director's panic-inducing attack in War of the Worlds.

christopher nolan's dunkirk
Warner Bros. Pictures

Tommy is constantly on the cusp of death, and Nolan, ever the screenwriting trickster, manages to thread his week at the beach with stories over the course a day (sea) and an hour (air) into one relentless, heart-pounding action sequence. It's the nesting doll device from the end of Inception all over again, but whereas that had some plot-specific reasons for scenes-within-scenes, this time it's just to evoke the disorientation of battle and maintain the ferocious pace. Looked at (and listened to) as pure cinema, Dunkirk is one big exercise in survival horror tension. There's hardly any character development or even typical acting. There's just one thing: react to the newest obstacle then run/jump/swim into the next one.

Most British audiences know about the evacuation of Dunkirk, but American filmgoers who snoozed in history class may not quite understand the importance of what happened on that French beach in May of 1940. This is a rare case where the dunce may end up having the more substantial experience. With no foreknowledge of how those small boats will be branded "the Dunkirk spirit []" or what Winston Churchill will eventually say about all this, one can focus exclusively on the shocks as well as composer Hans Zimmer's tick-tocking score. The omnipresent thrumming and rising chord changes that -- again, echoing nightmare logic -- never get resolved are just as effective as the Imax-sized images.

One of the small, civilian boats that came to the aid of the hundreds of thousands of stranded soldiers is one of the sides to this story's triangle. Mark Rylance and two young boys sail directly into danger, tying our stomachs into knots as he does it. Along the way he picks up a panicked soldier (Cillian Murphy) who slowly becomes a looming threat. They even have to lock him in a closet on their tiny trawler, but he escapes and pops up like Michael Myers.

dunkirk tom hardy
Warner Bros. Pictures

The third storyline is mostly an extended dogfight with Tom Hardy front and center. (Like he did as Bane, he's once again wearing a mask – Christopher Nolan hates Hardy's chin!) But there's a section in which his wingman (played by The Tunnel's Jack Lowden) is hit, lands safely on water, but then can't open his hatch. He slowly watches through the glass roof (echoing a movie screen) as he sinks lower to a frustrating and gruesome demise.

This is a repeated motif in the film. Time and again characters think they are safe, only for dread to reveal itself. I lost count at how many boats end up toppling over due to bombs, torpedoes, and bullets that ripped open just enough holes in a hull. Life rafts end up being too crowded, oily water catches fire, and fellow soldiers turn out to be not as noble as they seem.

It's all absolutely riveting, but not quite the high-minded salute to the Greatest Generation the marketing may have you believe. A tacked-on ending featuring the "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" speech will surely get some British patriots misty-eyed. But if I were a cynical bastard, I'd say the American version would be reading the Gettysburg Address at the eventual finale to The Walking Dead. Nolan's Dunkirk spirit is perhaps a bit more ghoulish than the one from history.

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Jordan Hoffman is a film critic and writer whose work appears in The Guardian, Vanity Fair, and Mashable. Follow him on Twitter @jhoffman.