The Experimental Filmmaking of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’

In a recent interview, Christopher Nolan regarded his film Dunkirk as his most experimental film since Memento, which is really saying something considering The Prestige is in that timeline parameter and that movie still whacks me in the face at the end every time I watch it. I reviewed the film and did discuss a little bit of how he might be right about Dunkirk as an experimental film. But the more I’ve thought about it over the week and in the conversations I’ve had with others, it really dawned on me that Nolan took a lot more risks in his filmmaking here than I had originally considered. Dunkirk is an incredibly unique war film, and an incredibly unique Christopher Nolan film. It just might be his most experimental film since Memento after all.

It starts with how he constructs the characters and binds them to a rigid sequence of events. Dunkirk has a strict sense of setting/timeframe, not allowing for character backstory or followup in regards to these events, Nolan is only concerned with exploring what happened on this week on the beaches of Dunkirk. Normally, an absence of character development or character backstory is a bad thing, so it’s even more impressive that Nolan succeeded as much as he did in spite of these aspects that stood to hurt the film. I don’t know that a single character really has an arc like we would expect them to. We don’t know anything about these characters lives before the start of the film, and we don’t find out what happen to many of them afterward. In any other film we would have had flashbacks to whatever budding romance the main young soldier had begun before the war.

And the fact that I refer to that character as the “the main young soldier” brings me to my next point – I can’t tell you a single character’s name from that film. Again, this is a strange case where that’s not a bad thing. In conversations with friends we’ve referred to them as “Tom Hardy’s character” or “The main young soldier” or “Harry Styles” rather than whatever their character’s names were. And guess what? Even with the vague descriptor “main young solider” you know who I’m talking about if you’ve seen the film. A lot of that comes down to the casting of the film, Nolan pads Dunkirk with terrific talent that can carry you past the lack of character knowledge. In fact, the lack of character knowledge surprisingly adds more to the tension of the piece, you only know what the characters do and suffer the same disorientation that war creates. You keep waiting for the film to give you this basic information we’ve been trained to expect, and when Nolan withholds all that he amps up your anxiety and unease.

Non-linear storytelling is Nolan’s bread and butter, and it’s incredibly brave to apply that to a war film/historical event film as he cuts between 7 days on the beach, 1 day on the sea and 1 hour in the air. It’s disorienting but appropriately so, pulling you closer into the chaos of the event. In lesser hands, it could have easily not worked. It’s not just the non-linear construction that Nolan injects into the film, it’s the cross-cutting narratives he employs as well. Cross-cutting between narratives is also Nolan’s bread and butter. Some of the best sequences in The Dark Knight come from Nolan cutting between different characters working towards discovering the same information, leading the sequence to an explosive climax each time as the separate tensions in each storyline mount into one. The final like 2/3rds of Inception are one gigantic cross-cutting sequence. He knows how to really build these. With Dunkirk, you could argue the construction of the film is mounting sequences of cross-cutting between the beach, sky and sea, achieving the similar feeling of tension as these characters come to the same instances of realization and culmination of storylines, ramping up the separate streams of tension into one. And when he combines his cross-cutting narratives with non-linear storytelling? It’s just amazing that all the pieces fall into place like they do.

What I’m trying to get at here, is that Nolan really took a lot of bold risks with Dunkirk that don’t immediately register, largely because of how seamless he makes it feel. There’s just so many instances and aspects of this film that shouldn’t have worked, but somehow unquestionably did. Dunkirk is not just one of Nolan’s greatest exercises in experimental filmmaking, it may be his most stunning and successful high wire act of filmmaking.

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