Dunkirk can be best summarized as an arthouse film with blockbuster budget and production values, with all the advantages and missteps of both. It’s a very interesting film to critique, but I’m not sure if it actually translated into a good film. It’s certainly a good film to debate over.
To begin with, Dunkirk isn’t a war movie, despite being set in WW2. If you approach it as a war movie along the lines of The Thin Red Line, Hacksaw Ridge or Saving Private Ryan, you’ll be disappointed by the lack of authenticity and bored by the lack of action or drama. Instead Dunkirk is an imagination of a real WW2 scenario, like one of Cobb’s dreams in Inception. It seems real enough at first glance, and certainly very pretty, but there’s always something that distorts that reality.
First things first, Dunkirk is a gorgeous, minimalist movie. The entire movie is set in hues of blue, turquoise and bits of orange, and other colours muted. The acting is good, but lacking drama and too subdued for the subject matter. Aside from one scene where you can see an openly terrified British soldier, almost everyone else is tense, but don’t seem to be in panic mode even as their ship is sinking. It doesn’t adequately portray the terror of waiting for evacuation, or being left behind to be captured.
My real problem with Dunkirk is the concept to begin with. As a war movie, it’s hopelessly inaccurate due to the minimalist treatment, tiny scale and completely inauthentic military doctrines. You need suspension of disbelief by assuming every soldier or fighter plane is actually a representation of 10 more unseen ones. The movie was largely shot in IMAX, which was intended to convey a lot of wide spaces and an epic scale. In a movie where you see no more than several hundred foot soldiers on clean beaches, 3 Spitfires and just a few more German aircraft, it only makes the movie look rather empty instead of being the largest ever evacuation in human history.
Put simply, Dunkirk was the wrong subject for an arthouse film treatment. The irony is, if you took out the opening Omaha Beach set piece in Saving Private Ryan, it or The Thin Red Line would’ve been more appropriate scenarios for the minimalist setting Dunkirk applies, since both movies are squad-based infantry centric and also look deeply into the individual soldier’s psyche.
I complained about Hacksaw Ridge being overwhelmingly violent, but Dunkirk is so clean and clinical that the soldiers hardly even look dirty or scruffy except towards the end. The bloodless, PG-13 violence also does little to convince viewers of the sheer horror of the Dunkirk scenario, which saw some 80,000 casualties, close to 40,000 British soldiers taken prisoner and over 70,000 tanks, vehicles and artillery guns captured. None of that is conveyed in the film. Nor is the desperate French rearguard fighting to buy time for the British forces to evacuate. If anything, Dunkirk feels like a piece of revisionist attempt to turn the British Empire’s worst military disaster since The Battle of The Somme into a victory rather than a faithful dramatization of what really happened.
So let’s not treat Dunkirk as a war movie. What is it then? It’s shot like a horror film, except with a series of sporadic PG-13 violence in place of jump scares. Aside from the aircraft attacks, everyone else is killed invisibly by a faceless enemy, as if stalked by some ghostly reaper. The ever-mounting and frantic score certainly seems to reinforce that notion. But, Dunkirk’s constantly high tension leads to no climax or payoff. Nor does it learn to ease off the tension to build it up again, like The Conjuring did. By keeping the mood tense for almost the entire movie, the movie is essentially an emotional plateau, so when the third act reaches its climax, it hardly feels climatic because the audience is already desensitized by that point.
I left the cinema partially enjoying Dunkirk for the visuals, and the overall good acting. I certainly enjoyed it much more than the preachy Interstellar. But Dunkirk also feels pretty hollow, detached and sanitized. I got the feeling it’s set in an alternate reality instead of being a historical piece. It’s lacking any real plot, underlying message or target audience even. In a way, Dunkirk is an important film because that’s the only way a mainstream audience will watch an arthouse film with little action. But that’s mainly because it’s directed by Christopher Nolan, not because it’s an arthouse film.