From its opening extended take of soldiers walking through deserted streets, Dunkirk arrests attention and maintains a tight grip throughout its running time. It is by turns a gripping, moving and eerie experience, more an existential thriller than a war film. It eschews prolonged battle sequences yet the fear of attack by land, sea and air is constant, while aerial dogfights make abrupt intrusions into the visual assembly. Its story progresses through the attempted evacuation of British troops from the French coastal town in 1940, but presents its three plot strands across different time frames – land for a week, sea for a day, air for an hour – simultaneously rather than sequentially. It draws on silent cinema with a great trust in visual storytelling, combined with an intense soundtrack that blends Hans Zimmer’s relentless score with a sometimes suggestive and other times crashing sound mix. It is light on characterisation and dialogue, which combined with its primarily visual storytelling results in a somewhat impressionistic experience. It is in several ways a departure for writer-director Christopher Nolan, being his first foray into historical dramatization while also foregoing a central character such as Bruce Wayne or Dominic Cobb, since its three narrative strands follow a range of figures caught up in the evacuation. On the other hand, Nolan is very much on home turf thematically, as his familiar tropes are present including a layered narrative and an explicit engagement with the cinematic manipulation of time. The intercutting of the three stories echoes the multiple levels of Inception and Memento, as well as the nested narratives of The Prestige and the time-jumping of Interstellar. Nolan and editor Lee Smith cut between these strands, and this discontinuity demonstrates Nolan’s ongoing exploration of trauma and the associated fracturing of the mind.
The film emphasises trauma with Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked Shivering Soldier, who contrasts with Tom Hardy’s unflappable RAF pilot Farrier, while stoicism informs the older generation both civilian – Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson – and military – Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, as well as the younger generation in Dawson’s crew and Fionn Whitehead’s young Tommy on the beach who would be a wide-eyed innocent if his eyes did not hint at what he has seen. This is a recurring feature throughout Dunkirk, as director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema captures close ups of faces and eyes as well as subjective angles and oppressive lighting to convey the imprisonment of the stranded soldiers, also by Nolan’s decision to concentrate the film on the empty stretch of the beaches as well as the pitiless expanse of the sea. For some, this could be alienating as viewers may want a wealth of character detail in order to engage with the drama. But the film’s sparseness is also a great strength as the film creates an immersive and absorbing world that the viewer can themselves inhabit and fear. The ‘enemy’ is only seen in silhouette, which makes them all the more menacing, especially when bullets from unseen sources pepper the soldiers and, in a sense, the viewer themselves. All reactions to film are subjective, and Dunkirk emphasises the subjectivity of experience. Experience is central to the film, the experience of the characters parallel to that of the viewer. As a film, Dunkirk is an intricate and electrifying lattice of image and sound. As an experience, it is ruthlessly efficient and mercilessly tense, a sublime immersion in trauma, time and terror.
Baby Driver begins with one of the most arresting openings seen this year. We motor through a car chase over the dulcet tones of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion with ‘Bellbottoms’, as the eponymous motorist Baby (Ansel Elgort) evades police with remarkable skills that demonstrate why he is the best driver around. Writer-director Edgar Wright then ups the ante with one of his trademark long takes, as Baby essentially dances his way through the streets of Atlanta to the tune of Bob and Earl’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’. It is an opening of assured choreography and bravura musical choices, that clearly lays out Baby Driver‘s conceit of a heist film shot and edited like a musical. Overall, this conceit works, but the film never quite accelerates to the level achieved during its opening. The performances are very fine, especially Jamie Foxx as genuinely menacing psychopath Bats, while the romance between Baby and Debora (Lily James) is sweet and charming. Wright makes smart use of the Atlanta locations and delivers several rubber-burning car chases as well as some surprisingly nasty gun fights. These sequences fit with the straightfacedness of the film, which may be a surprise for those expecting a comedic tone like Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy as well as Scott Pilgrim VS the World. The lack of comedy is not a problem as the film works as a straight heist thriller with a distinct and imaginative soundtrack. However, in its final act the film meanders off the highway with some ill-judged sentiment that has been previously absent. Sentiment is fine but needs to be there since ignition – here it feels like an incongruous diversion from the brutality of the gangster milieu. In addition, the finale of the film is overdone with more than one too many ‘It’s not over yet!’ moments. Thankfully the film’s denouement avoids mawkish sentimentality, ensuring that this ride gets back on the road rather than becoming a wreck. Baby Driver may not be a perfect journey, but it still offers ample swerves and spins.