It would be a blatant exaggeration to call Dunkirk an experimental film, or any such thing. But for a film with a $150 million price tag that's been positioned as the biggest superhero-free Warner Bros. tentpole of 2017, it does just about as much experimenting as it could possibly dare. The film, on paper, is a story of the evacuation of British soldiers from the beaches outside of Dunkirk, France in May and June of 1940, but the screenplay that director Christopher Nolan has been nurturing along (so he claims) since the early 1990s, before he even had a filmmaking career, is barely a "story" at all in the casual meaning of the term.

The film takes place across three plot threads in three time frames: "The Mole"* which portrays a week in the life of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a British soldier trying to stay safe and alive on the beach, while the evacuation slowly takes pace; "The Sea", which tells a single day of the evacuation, as the civilian Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and young deckhand George (Barry Keoghan) make their way across the treacherous Channel, under enemy fire, to pick up a load of evacuees in Dawson's boat; and "The Air", portraying a tense afternoon hour of three British spitfire pilots, most prominently Farrier (Tom Hardy), providing cover for the boats against the Germany air force. That the film cross-cuts between three different timelines is already sign enough that Nolan's primary interest is in something other than clearly laying out, docudrama-style, the events of the Dunkirk evacuation, but that's really just the top of the iceberg. It would still be possible to tell a largely coherent trilogy of stories this way, but Dunkirk doesn't: nor does it particularly care about the characters. Other than Dawson, no human being in the film feels particularly well-defined with anything resembling psychological depth (and Dawson's greater depth owes mostly to Rylance's performance, not the screenplay, and not the way Nolan frames him). I refuse to think of this as a flaw, since it's quite obviously being done intentionally and for a specific reason, though it does mean that Dunkirk is awfully far from being a crowd-pleaser of any sort.

The film's game is to present, rather than a clear narrative about the war or a character study about men in combat, a chain of highly subjective experiences, cross-cut together with visceral, emotional logic rather than narrative cohesion. The characters are so devoid of interiority because they are, ultimately, empty vessels for the audience's own experience. They're all a bunch of meat puppets, we could say, if we're of a mind to be a little bit snippy about the whole thing, as I'm not. Honestly, I rather admire the goal Dunkirk has set for itself, though I'm not absolutely certain it meets that goal. Basically, the film wants to be the opening 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, stretched out across the entirety length of a feature film (though not too much of one: at 106 minutes, Dunkirk is an hour and then some shorter than Saving Private Ryan, and Nolan's shortest feature since his first, the slender 1998 indie Following), and without any other plot material to distract from the central feature: the overwhelming horror and chaos of individual moments in wartime, so intense in and of themselves that there is no sense of chronology or momentum between events. There is only a free-floating succession of terrors.

As far as that goes, it's hard to say a single word against Dunkirk. It's not as staggering in its totality as the D-Day sequence from Saving Private Ryan, which would anyway be a ridiculous standard to hold any movie to. It's also quite inconsistent: the scenes in the week spent at the beach are easily the most visceral and splendidly disorienting, while the scenes in Farrier's spitfire, though absurdly well-shot to indicate the limits of the pilot's POV, lack the tension and build-up of the "Mole" and "Sea" sequences (there's also quite a bit less of them; the film does not split into equal thirds, and "The Air" very much gets the short end of the stick). Dawson's boat, meanwhile, is pretty much the only place that has anything even resembling emotional resonance, particularly once a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) is pulled from the sea and starts flailing around. Dawson himself is fairly unique in having a clear motivation other than "to survive"; he's the film's solitary exemplar of Home Front British Stolidity and Duty to Our Boys. Which isn't much personality, but it's more than anybody else has.

The net result, for me at least, is that "The Mole" and "The Sea" are both substantially interesting and engaging, while the film's momentum noticeably sags every time "The Air" comes along. Which leads me to one of the... not "problems". I haven't figured out yet if it's a "problem". The thing is, I'm not entirely sure that the three-part non-linear, cross-cutting structure actually yields up more to Dunkirk than it takes away. It definitely adds something: the ability to stitch the three timelines together at different moments of crisis is a huge part of why Dunkirk work as an experiential dive into the feeling of combat as an eternal, wearying present-tense moment. And when the three timelines coalesce, the film snaps into place with one of 2017's best moments of pop-cinema poetry outside of the No Man's Land scene from Wonder Woman. The flipside of this is that, for most of the first 70-odd minutes, it feels like nothing at all but a gimmick, Nolan doing one of his chilly brain games instead of telling his story in an accessible way. It's confusing, but not in the good, organic, "where are we now and what am I experiencing" way that the film can often be. I confess that on this point, I am and will remain ambivalent till I see the film a second time; it feels much like one's first viewing of Nolan's Inception, where it all works in a mostly satisfying way, but could easily come across as either more impressively holistic or wearily mechanical upon a second viewing (and with Inception, my second viewing tended towards "wearily mechanical").

Not everything is that ambivalent. The Hans Zimmer score, for example, I'm entirely prepared to write off without a second thought. It is virtually non-stop, likely in a bid to help stitch together the "eternal Now" feeling of the three timelines, which do flow together better because of the music than they would otherwise. But that music is so one-size-fits-all and monotonous! It's a clear detriment to the whole, blurring the lines between different energy levels and tones so that the most intense, nerve-wracking moments largely sound like the most relaxed interstitial moments. The result is a movie that basically has one emotional state for 90 straight minutes.

On the other side of things, it is a gorgeous piece of craftsmanship outside of the score. The film was shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema, working for the second time with Nolan (Interstellar was their first collaboration), mostly on 65mm and 65mm IMAX stock, and the results are gloriously crystal-clear and expansive (for the record, I saw the film on regular 70mm). The film favors blown-out white, overcast skies and strong key lighting on the characters, giving an unromantic, hard cast to the visuals that pairs well with its mechanical approach to narrative. And the sound mix is an outright masterpiece, leveling music, dialogue, and the wrathful sounds of metal and the ocean into a raging, atonal symphony ofΒ  chaos. And yes, as you've heard, the dialogue is buried sometimes; but the dialogue virtually never actually matters, so this is a small problem.

All told, Dunkirk is a bit more intellectualised than it absolutely ought to be; it is maybe felt in the head more than the roiling pit of the guts. But it's not as hamstrung by this as Interstellar was by its equally brainy approach to its emotion-driven story. At least Dunkirk can get by on the animalistic quality of its actors, all reaction shots and stricken looks. And it is, to be certain, a wonderful variation on the usual war movie clichΓ©s: it's non-story story and non-character characters get at something deeper than yet another story about people forging themselves in the smelter of combat, or what have you. Even in the final scenes, when it makes a swerve towards patriotic sentiment, it's from a detached perspective that cares more about winding the story down than necessarily giving us an emotional whoosh as we head out the door (even the reading of Churchill's famously rousing, morale-boosting speech from 4 June is presented with disaffection and little interest in the rhetorical feeling of the words). If the result of this is a film that's slightly brittle and unlikely to hold up, I cannot confidently say; it is surely at least a possibility. In the meanwhile, though, it offers a sad-making big-screen spectacle like little else.




*A mole is a stone pile that functions as a pier, and not, in this case, an undercover spy, which definition I share so that nobody needs to be as confused by the first half-hour or so as I was.