Category Archives: Full Reviews

‘Chappaquiddick’ Review: An unsettling portrait of political gaslighting

Political scandals are nothing new, or quite surprising, in today’s world. And as possible, even likely, as it is that Chappaquiddick was made without the specifics of today’s world in mind, its release at this moment in time colors the film in a deeply unsettling way.

The film picks up with Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke), brother to the assassinated John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, at a turning point in his life. After a party and some drinks, he takes a drive with Mary Jo Kopechne — a drive that ends with the car flipped off of a bridge into the water off Chappaquiddick island, and Mary Jo dead by drowning.

But Chappaquiddick doesn’t choose to focus on the event itself for too long. A majority of the story revolves around the aftermath, around Ted Kennedy’s attempts to turn himself from a possible criminal into another victim of the event. And that is where the film reaches into the filth of politics.

Rather early on, the film takes a side. Ted, on his way back to mainland, is advised by his cousin Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms) to immediately notify the police the night of the accident, and director John Curran chooses to crosscut between Ted ignoring Gargan’s advice and Mary Jo screaming for help, clinging onto the sliver of air left in the car as it sinks. The sequence is incredibly uncomfortable and infuriating to watch, but that’s purposeful and effective to the story the film tells.

Much of the visual look of Chappaquiddick, in regard to the costume design and production design, is rather standard, and risks rendering the film dull. But Curran’s composition of the film continues to work to reveal political filth. As Ted and the powerhouse publicity/legal team put together by his father plan their “version of the truth,” Curran chooses to literally manifest and show the type of story that they plan to feed to the American people, granting the film an almost dry-yet-unnerving humor in the immorality of it all. At a point, the film’s use of visual juxtaposition becomes almost cruel in its effectiveness, such as when the edit reveals that the manipulation is working on, of all people, Mary Jo’s parents.

Chappaquiddick does present us with some sense of identification in the form of Gargan. While the film makes clear in its editing that Gargan is, at the end of the day, complicit, the character creates constant tension at nearly every development. Ed Helms is particularly magnificent, the role playing into the typical good-guy tone that Helms is so good at, while also offering some quiet (and loud) dramatic moments that we don’t see much of from him.

But the film undoubtedly rests on the shoulders of Jason Clarke, and Clarke turns in one of his finest performances. He takes a character so clearly positioned as an anti-hero and doesn’t necessarily make him sympathetic, but makes him intriguing, accentuating the despicable faults of Ted Kennedy with force. Clarke hits on the pressure that the character feels with that last name and, in turn, evokes the whiplash infantilism, masked in the facade of the mysticism of “Kennedy,” that that pressure has resulted in.

And that is precisely why the film succeeds. It doesn’t deny the mysticism of the Kennedy family. It just simply understands that that mysticism can turn very, very ugly.

Grade: 8.3/10

 

Featured image via Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures.

‘The Shape of Water’ Review: A fantasy as rich emotionally as it is visually

When a film has a fantastical premise, it must naturalize that concept in order to sell it to an audience that doesn’t come from that world. It’s an achievement that’s often underappreciated and overlooked, but, when done well, it can result in cinematic magic.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman working in an underground government facility, and the facility’s captured amphibian man (Doug Jones) with whom she falls in love. And due to cohesive, visually beautiful and thematically rich work from all departments, the film is perhaps the epitome of that kind of magic.

The most emotionally moving layer of The Shape of Water is its theme of the other. del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor pace out Elisa’s growing attachment to the creature so smoothly and precisely, and center it on moments personally meaningful to the characters. The creature is a being that doesn’t communicate with language the way humans do and grows a bond with Elisa through action and sign language. And in a stunning scene from Hawkins, Elisa explains that she feels so close to this creature because he can’t understand that she’s mute — or how she is, as she says, “incomplete.”

The framing of character, mainly in regard to Elisa, but also in how the same might be true for the creature, grabs the viewer’s heart with full force as it relies on vulnerability forced upon these two by a world unaccepting. The scenes with only these two are transcendent, concoctions of Alexandre Desplat’s floating score, Dan Laustsen’s swimming cinematography, visually arresting craft work from the likes of makeup and production design, and just the beauty of the concept of the moments in the first place.

Much of it wouldn’t work, though, if Sally Hawkins weren’t a powerhouse. Dialogue can often be a cop out in explaining a character’s traits and motivations, so the fact that we understand Elisa as well as we do any other character in film this year is an accomplishment nearly beyond words. Hawkins leverages physicality, not just in sign language, but in how she signs, in how her eyes communicate with the other character in the scene, in how she moves through rooms and hallways with a levity and wonder that tell us exactly what Elisa is thinking.

Yet, the rest of the cast is also magnificent. Richard Jenkins’ performance as Giles is lived in, an almost foil to Hawkins’ mute character as his is full of words. But we get the same sense — of course, individualized in its specifics — of how Giles himself feels incomplete, of how he’s been othered. And his chemistry with Hawkins is just delightful, resulting in an onscreen friendship that is so depthful and lovely.

Michael Shannon also thrives as the film’s antagonist, Richard Strickland. For some storytellers, there might’ve been an inclination to offer Strickland less development than he receives here, and it would’ve been understandable, which is why it’s so refreshing that del Toro and Taylor dive deep into his psychology. We get a sense of his motivations and see those expanded upon, and Shannon’s growling sneer is the perfect device to take it all even further.

In fact, there’s so much going on in every minute of The Shape of Water. Beneath everything, Guillermo del Toro offers a love letter to cinema of the past, similarly to La La Land, and two particular scenes, one being a tender musical ode and the other a striking and gritty noir sequence, are delicious.

But what sticks with us about this film is that empathy that’s offered to its characters. The visuals are stunning — no one does fantasy and truly sells it and layers it into every corner of the frame quite like del Toro — but those visuals are even more memorable because of the tone of empathy that del Toro injects into it all.

The Shape of Water asks us to care for one another, to listen to those who feel incomplete and not only help them feel otherwise, but fully support the life they want to live. And that is a kind of story worth championing.

Grade: 8.6/10

 

Featured image via Fox Searchlight Pictures.

‘Hostiles’ Review: A haunting, meditative Western ruminating on duty and hatred

Great contemporary Westerns are few and far in between. They either come from a big time director like Quentin Tarantino with Django Unchained, are remade from classics like the Coens’ True Grit and James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma or strike at just the right time like David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water.

Writer-director Scott Cooper has neared the genre with the tangentially related Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, so it’s not much of a surprise that he’s the next to deliver.

Hostiles, following Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) as he escorts Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) across the country despite hating him for killing many of his comrades, is brutal from minute one until the very end. But the brutality, the soul crushing violence serves narrative purpose. The film ruminates on the hatred that builds between these intruding white men and the Native Americans fighting for their lands, and Cooper pulls off a tricky moral balance in placing a white man, full of hate, at the head of his story.

Cooper evokes empathy for Blocker and for Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) through the unfathomable violence that we see them encounter, while periodically and carefully invoking a sense of history to temper viewers’ full allegiance to these characters and force audiences to confront the long term, less visible violence that Yellow Hawk, his family and his people have faced.

The turn of Blocker’s morality is a fascinating one. Another of the underlying themes of the film is in how we follow duty, where duty leads us and where duty ends. The army men are often given direct orders to further the genocide of the Native Americans, and Blocker believes that this separates him from the others who just kill to kill.

But in taking on a duty that is in such direct tension with his hatred, one that the film contextualizes with violence, Blocker almost becomes like the audience, slowly forced to confront his shortsightedness of simply following duty ordered by men — and Cooper’s climactic moment for Blocker is precise and perfect in regard to the character’s arc.

Hostiles is slow and meditative, but there’s still a fire in its pacing. The beats are perfectly doled out and hit hard, creating a pulsating feel to the film’s progression. And when those moments hit, they’re shot hauntingly by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, whether that be in low angle close-ups of broken men or in Deakins-esque long shots of heart-wrenching sights. Layer in Max Richter’s swelling score, and the film becomes emotionally overwhelming in a very effective way.

At times, though, Cooper does overwrite beats. So much of Hostiles works, and sticks with us long after we’ve left the theater, because of how quiet and subtle it all is — and it seems that Cooper is, sometimes, not confident in his ability to sell those quiet moments, causing him to indulge in laying out his point a bit too clearly.

But even then, that doesn’t become much of an issue due to every single actor performing at the top of their game. Rosamund Pike plays the character who encounters the most, and the most shocking tragedy in the film, and she turns all of herself over to the role to portray the trauma that the violence causes. Wes Studi’s role is, in terms of dialogue, small, but Cooper often frames him in close-up and Studi commands the screen.

And Christian Bale turns in one of his greatest performances, which is saying something when considering the career that he’s had. Similarly to Studi, Bale is riveting in his quietude, as he’s somehow able to portray his character’s interiority without saying a word. And when he speaks, it’s often soft and subdued, but there’s a consistent underlying intensity, achieved through how Bale interacts physically with his counterpart in the scene and how he often pushes the emotional work from his mouth to his eyes. It’s truly the sign of a master, and it’s a performance that renders Hostiles a brilliant Western.

Grade: 8.7/10

 

Featured image via Entertainment Studios.

‘The Post’ Review: Steven Spielberg delivers a prescient drama that lacks subtlety

With The Post, which follows Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) during the leak and coverage of the Pentagon Papers, director Steven Spielberg employs immersive filmmaking techniques to evoke the feeling that we’re a fellow journalist amid this madness. He and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski opt to shoot many of the scenes handheld, constantly moving as they follow those in the newsroom. A particular sequence, with journalists packed into Bradlee’s house, is riveting in its composition, the camera panning to the different reporters as they make discoveries, the editing fluid and the chemistry between the actors magnetic. Even when the key players are motionless, the camera is often moving, slowly tracking and observing — like during a discovery — or in close-up.

Both Hanks and Streep lead this film brilliantly with charisma and charm, particularly in Hanks’ all American gravitas. He’s not particularly masterful in anyway, but his take on Ben Bradlee, with a slightly cocked East coast accent, is entirely engaging and just plain fun to watch.

But — not to discount Hanks — The Post, in regard to its actors, is Meryl Streep’s show. Much of the film is about the resolve of Graham as a women leading a newspaper with a board and newsroom full of, almost entirely, men, and Spielberg’s visualization of this is intriguing. Graham is often shot from behind as she walks into a room with a sea of black suits, their heads all turning to her. And Kaminski pushes in close on Graham as we see her try to find the words that she knows, but feels like she can’t say due to the overwhelming men talking over her.

Streep injects Graham, who is comfortable with people yet uncomfortable in her position, with a simultaneous confidence and vulnerability that is incredibly fine tuned. There’s something so controlled about how Streep paces out her dialogue and movement that’s difficult to grasp because it is such an intangible skill to be so precise while maintaining naturalism. While Graham, as a character, may be crowded by these men, Streep herself commands the screen, which renders Graham’s moment of power so satisfying.

The Post, though, is a difficult film to grapple with on multiple levels. Spielberg has, as of late, lacked subtlety and this film is no exception. It seems as though The Post wants to make sure viewers confront its themes directly and explicitly rather than allow the subtlety of the progressing narrative to seep into them, which changes how audiences consume the story. The ending literally states the themes through dialogue spoken in close-up.

While this is a problem for other films, it doesn’t hamper The Post’s effectiveness because of the time during which it’s arrived. For many, championing the press’ first amendment rights has been an everyday scenario for about a year now. Subtlety in narrative would’ve surely made the film a masterpiece. But explicitness, with the topic being something so many agree on and find so prescient now, doesn’t negatively impact the enjoyment of the film even if it doesn’t allow it to be, on a technical level, as good as it had the potential to be.

Regardless of its faults, it’s hard not to appreciate the feat that Spielberg pulled off, delivering the film just under eight months after beginning principal photography. It’s also hard to deny that, since it’s good, The Post is a valuable film in today’s age.

Grade: 8.2/10

 

Featured via 20th Century Fox.

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Review: A humanist, subversive, new kind of ‘Star Wars’ story

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the most signficant franchise in popular culture awoke from a deep slumber. However, it did so with a sense of familiarity that, while perhaps necessary, hurts the film in hindsight.

But Star Wars: The Last Jedi takes another necessary step, that of subversion of the very things that The Force Awakens hinged on. And in doing so, The Last Jedi breathes urgent purpose into the new trilogy, purpose it had yet to prove.

What’s immediately evident about The Last Jedi — through a nailbiter of an opening sequence, which includes an absolutely hysterical bit that tops Poe’s opening of “who talks first?” in The Force Awakens — is that this film is interested in people. While some large scale action films focus on the spectacle, writer-director Rian Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin’s camera situates us with the fighting, the sacrificing and the dying that fuel those battles.

When it comes to his focus on our main characters, Johnson succeeds in giving them all heavy, deeply personal character arcs. Finn needs to learn how best to fight for the Resistance. Poe needs to learn leadership that thinks ahead of the enemy, that thinks of everyone that a potential failure in leadership might affect. And John Boyega and Oscar Isaac inject the same kind of charismatic vigor into their characters that made them so lovable in the first place.

But Johnson’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker, this mammoth figure in pop culture, is the film’s most dynamic feature. And that’s because Johnson takes him out of the familiar, out of what we know him to be. Essentially, Johnson dissects “the legend” of Luke Skywalker, questioning that title by focusing in on Kylo Ren’s turn to the dark side years prior while at Luke’s Jedi school. It gives Mark Hamill new space to explore, as a rehash of pure heroism would’ve failed to be profound, and Hamill offers up a hilarious, pained, tired and tender performance. Though the trilogy jumps decades, we still get to feel the weight of those decades because Hamill bares it tangibly and beautifully.

Johnson intertwines Luke’s arc with those of Rey and Kylo in a way that challenges Rey’s almost original-trilogy-Luke sense of purpose, and in a way that cuts straight to the heart of Kylo’s light-dark conflict. It’s a brilliant framework, as the film adds new layers to Kylo, not only in the context of his turn but in the context of his purpose moving forward. Adam Driver ingrains those emotions deep into his performance, rendering him as one of the more complex villains in large scale cinema.

The framework also places Rey at the forefront, mainly through her search for identity now that she’s been thrust into the world of the Force. The film’s answer is decidedly feminist, fitting into Johnson’s overall idea of who heroes are, and Daisy Ridley capitalizes on the material, delivering a performance that is, appropriately, searching, yet also gripping in its painful anger and raw vulnerability.

The film is truly an ensemble piece, even more so than most typical ensembles as there’s a sense of individualized growth within nearly every character. And the performances of the rest of the cast are wholly committed, including vibrant work by newcomer Kelly Marie Tran, a towering presence from Laura Dern and a brave turn by the late Carrie Fisher.

This is, however, where the film slightly falters, as it becomes, at times, too stuffed with so much character work happening at the same time and in different places, which impacts the film’s pacing. Certain moments, such as when the plot needs to catch up, happen too quickly or conveniently and other moments, such as those of thematic significance, feel a bit too drawn out. The film also has four acts, which is not unusual, but it requires an extremely careful sense of flow and progression, perhaps exemplified by The Dark Knight. And while the flow from the third act into the fourth isn’t terrible, it’s unbalanced.

But the film, despite its flaws, is genuinely stunning. Johnson choreographs action — both in space and on the ground — with such rhythmic intensity and fluidity, but also with an underlying grit informed by the film’s humanism. And the settings within which that action takes place are so singular and transfixing, often due to Rick Heinrich’s spellbinding production design and Steve Yedlin’s soaring and awe-striking cinematography, especially in his long shots. 

The story, while not perfectly executed, also holds beauty. As said before, this film is about people. And Johnson engages with the political, shedding light on the First Order’s impact on the poor and forgotten, on those that come from nothing but a little bit of hope. Fascinatingly enough, however, Johnson, while portraying the Resistance lovingly, doesn’t shy away from critiquing the larger notion of the “machine” of the Resistance.

But it’s those like Rose Tico (Marie Tran), someone who works alone in the dirty underbelly of a Resistance ship and is not really a part of any “machine,” who can embody a heroism in the face of tyranny that leaders of the Resistance have yet to fully understand. It’s heroes like Rey who can represent the greatest that hope can stand for.

In that sense, The Last Jedi is a new kind of Star Wars story. Along the way, the film challenges a lot of what we’re familiar with, especially in regard to the mythology of the universe. At points, the film almost feels satirical in how it critiques what we expect a Star Wars film to be.

Therein lies the film’s value. More of the same, especially in a wasteland of traditional, unengaging hero stories, would’ve been a shame. It was necessary for The Force Awakens, for that film to care about what we thought of it.

But The Last Jedi believes in a new kind of hero and, thus, a new kind of Star Wars.

Grade: 8.8/10

 

Featured image via Lucasfilm.

Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’ is an allegorical, savagely comedic nightmare — Full Review

“Howl to the moon” was the phrase Darren Aronofsky used to opaquely describe his feelings behind mother!, this impeccably mounted, nearly impossible-to-digest-on-one-viewing allegory for the folly of mankind. And truly, love it or absolutely f*cking hate it, mother! can really only be described in that phrase.

To speak much about the story of mother! is a spoiler, since the marketing has done a brilliant job of hiding its twists and turns, and because the film makes obvious references to the most popular book in the world. Essentially, an ego-driven writer (Javier Bardem) and his wife, an endlessly loving woman (Jennifer Lawrence), are met by an uninvited couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) — and the writer is happy for the couple’s admiration of his work, yet the wife realizes nothing and no one are quite like they seem.

From here though, the film becomes an admittedly pretentious, but gonzo exploration of the depravity that can be fit within one single house.

What can be said, without the fear of giving too much away, is that mother! is an equivalent to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, but without the hope for life that Malick’s film glowed with. Rather, Darren Aronofsky’s film presents itself as a damning critique of many things, including, but not limited to religion, celebrity, global warming, immigration, war, trafficking, marriage, divorce and parenting.

The film is obvious in its ambitions, to the point where an engaged, literary-minded audience will quickly pick up the broad strokes at play. But the brazenness of it all comes from the fact that mother! also refuses to hold the audience’s hand, should they check out from this film’s delayed, but precipitous descent into humanity’s darkest depths.

If It is the ultimate crowd-pleasing horror film, then mother! is the ultimate soul-crushing one, albeit one brimming with the darkest of dark comedy — not far off from Dante’s playfully titled The Divine Comedy.

Much admiration, even from the audiences who reject the film’s aspirations and themes, must be lobbed toward the stunning work of Aronofsky regular Matthew Libatique, whose cinematography is tightly framed here, and the incredible sound mixing crew, who, without any score, build a palpable sense of dread from everything that happens off-screen.

Most impressively, though, is the Academy Award-winning Lawrence’s ability to command the screen so effortlessly. Aronofsky and Libatique wisely frame all of the film from her perspective, either with a tight close-up on her face or medium shots where she can still be seen within the frame even if another character is the focus.

The willingness of Lawrence to literally and figuratively bare it all, physically and emotionally, in this film is absolutely commendable, but that framing nearly verges toward exploitative. However, the film’s dirtiness and its treatment of her character is what the film asks viewers to ponder as they leave the theater.

Is mankind worth saving, or are we all doomed to destroy the things we should be loving and taking care of the most? Aronofsky refuses to give an answer, even if he suggests a pessimistic view. For cinephiles who like their films that way, mother! may stand as a landmark for years to come.

Grade: 9.4/10

Featured image via Paramount.

Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ is a structural masterpiece of tension, crafting emotion out of immersion — Full Review

*Warning* Spoilers ahead. Stop reading if you haven’t seen the film.

As Dunkirk required three timelines to tell its story, I required three viewings before reviewing. One to plunge into the filth. A second to discover what I missed. The time inbetween to read up on more background and intricacies. And a third to absorb as close to an entirety as I can.

And yet, an ‘entirety’ is entirely out of reach. Even on the 5,000+ square feet of an IMAX 70mm screen, details are so ingrained within each frame that it becomes impossible. That’s the nature of movies, however. And specifically, that’s the nature of Dunkirk.

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Warner Bros/Courtesy

We were never meant to receive each piece of experiential information. We must simply be aware of their presence because the film is as massive as it is intimate. As we run on, sail across and fly through the vastness of land, sea and air with these characters, we’re constantly stuck in suffocating spaces — the countless bodies lined up on the mole, the tight cabins of the Moonstone, the seemingly inescapable naval destroyer interiors and the rattling cockpit of a Spitfire.

That’s the contradiction that director Christopher Nolan must overcome. On their surface, land, sea and air are the most wide open of visual scapes. In Dunkirk, they’re the cell with no escape.

One of the most stunning shots of the entire film shows precisely how Nolan does it. As enemy planes dive bomb the beaches, the film cuts to a wide shot of the scrambling men in the sand, framed by two (prison) bars.

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Warner Bros/Courtesy

These may be wide open plains, but there’s nowhere to hide. As 400,000 Allied forces find themselves surrounded by enemy troops on the beaches of France, one sense arises: we’re trapped. And only one sense comes next: we must survive.

As Christopher Nolan has said time and time again, Dunkirk is a suspense film before it’s a war film. Its main question is not of the politics of how the Allied troops got to where they were. It’s simply a response to the situation, a matter of the soldiers’ perspective: will they survive? The soldiers didn’t know the exact position of the enemy, the reason why the RAF weren’t showing up or anything another film may show. So, neither will we. We’re simply planted alongside the soldiers, improvising and panicking as one of them.

With such a goal, Dunkirk becomes, in a measured 106 minutes, one of the most impressively crafted films of recent memory, and Nolan’s greatest achievement, so far, as a filmmaker — something that holds immeasurable weight considering that this is the director of The Dark Knight TrilogyInception and Interstellar.

There’s a method here more polished than in any of Nolan’s previous work. Taking the film’s goals, the genre and Nolan’s affinity for practical effects and large format offers immersion on an unmatched level.

Most of Dunkirk’s aerial sequences were filmed in just that: the air. Retrofitting old planes and inventing rigs for IMAX cameras, as well as sending the actors up into the sky make for images that tap into unidentifiable aspects of our viewing minds, aspects that allow us to process when real physics — of planes executing meticulous turns in the sky’s true air — are at work. It’s a difference that just can’t be understated and it’s a difference that Nolan doesn’t waste, precisely because of how those fights are orchestrated.

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Warner Bros/Courtesy

While X Wings are quick to down their targets, Spitfires, flown by Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), are slow and methodical. It takes minutes for our pilots to line up their guns and, nine times out of ten, those bullets will miss. It takes fierce, dedicated evation to stay alive, and careful communication to execute the perfect shot. Dunkirk’s aerial battles are more so eerie and unnerving, yet gracefully beautiful dances, which makes for better battles.

But the fact of the matter is that these sequences, and the rest of the masterclass action, of which it feels egregious to simply brush over, are in service of a larger technical endeavor. This is a suspense film, built on tension. And thus, Nolan and composer Hans Zimmer design their respective work to build tension. With a score that feels more like an augmentation of an already vicious and grueling soundscape, Zimmer utilizes the musical illusion of the Shepard Tone.

In simple terms, the Shepard Tone is an illusion consisting of three layers of sound, all an octave apart. The top layer moves from loud to soft. The middle layer stays the same. And the bottom layer moves from soft to loud. The effect is a constant feeling of rising tension. So while there may be a constant ticking, one that is undoubtedly central to the idea of time running out and to a sense of tension, the true core of this score lies in its ghostly, unforgiving, oceanic orchestra.

But Nolan makes use of the same trick in his own work. His intention with his three part structure was to adapt the Shepard Tone, an initially musical phenomenon, to writing and, in turn, to a film.

How can that work though? The three threads occur on different timelines. When they cross, we jump backwards and forwards. There’s a disjointedness to its structure.

We’ll get to that last part. But the concept is executed on an ingenious level. There’s never a sense of narrative momentum slowing down with these jumps, and that’s because they never actually slow down. Each thread, even if touching on story beats we’ve already met, is running forward with unstoppable force. The narratives are always progressing. If we’re jumping back to a moment we’ve seen before, it works because it’s a new moment in the thread we occupy.

For Dunkirk, one of the most massive and important events of the 20th century, such crafting of tension is the only way to approach this story.

And it works. As the film unfolds, we get a sense that the slippage of time, of one thread onto another, is just the beginning of a process. The threads start to get closer and closer. The characters colliding. The score building. Their space narrowing down to a single place in time.

And as we reach it, and as The Oil, one of Zimmer’s most truly affecting pieces ever composed, begins to play, the built up pressure, the gravest of circumstances, the grimmest of violence and the senselessness of survival all coalesce into a feeling of cinematic immersion singular to itself.

A ship is bombed, oil spills and soldiers swim helplessly in the water as the Moonstone braves waves to save as many as it can. And by virtue of editor Lee Smith’s absolutely refined work in bringing the filmic version of the Shepard Tone to fruition, the tension overwhelms one into a transfixed terror.

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Warner Bros/Courtesy

There is truly no appropriate description for such a feat of cinema, of filmmaking, of storytelling, all with a purpose, a purpose that fits.

And yet, all would be for only so much were the film not laced with every ounce of humanity Nolan could bring to it. It may seem cold to some at first. But upon reflection and return, Dunkirk’s idea of namelessness, near facelessness, all without much background, if any at all, is informed. And it comes in two shapes. Terror and togetherness, both crafted through perspective.

The terror of the situation is evident from the start. A surface swim into history will provide enough context to scare. But it’s in how Nolan crafts the scenario.

Bullets pierce without origin, without cinematic warning and with only an intention to kill. As hundreds of thousands of soldiers slowly rise after dive bombers sweep the beaches, hundreds, if not thousands remain motionless on the sand, built into the mise-en-scene as the cinematography lingers for long enough, but briefly enough to truly haunt.

The entire opening, filled with biting violin strikes as Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) carry a man on a stretcher for what seems like miles across the beach and the mole to a hospital ship about to leave, simply results in the downing of that very ship, with tens of wounded men on board, via enemy bombing.

With only seconds to decide, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) yells at the top of his lungs that the ship must be pushed away from the mole as it sinks — if not, then the mole would be completely blocked as an escape route. These are the sacrifices that must be made, captured as the camera slowly tracks away from Bolton’s frozen fear as all he can do is watch men flail overboard.

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Warner Bros/Courtesy

As the ship collides into the mole for a moment, and Alex (Harry Styles) is pulled away in the knick of time, a voice can be heard screaming as its body is crushed. The camera, of course, lingers.

While Dunkirk doesn’t actually bleed, except for a brief moment on the Moonstone, the film’s veins do bleed with senselessness. There is no mercy in war. No simple path. No logic. There is only terror. And Nolan’s film does that as well as war films with blood.

In fact, this idea of terror, and its causes on the individual, can be traced back through Nolan’s career, most significantly to The Dark Knight — what many call a response to post-9/11 US society. In that seminal film, the terror truly manifests not when the events happens, but as those they could happen to anticipate them.

The same can be said with Dunkirk. Some call Harry Styles’ Alex a villain, but what he actually represents is one of the more obvious victims of terror.

In his anticipation of terror, Alex turns on Gibson, a man who saved Alex’s life when he opened the door for drowning soldiers within the destroyer sinking after a torpedo strike, and accuses him of being a “German spy” with “an accent thicker than sauerkraut sauce.”

The scene is the one that proves Styles as more than a serviceable actor — because, as Nolan has said, the scene contains a subtle truth dependent on him to deliver. These lines of dialogue hold one of the very few direct mentions of the Germans. Outside of this scene, they’ve simply been called “the enemy,” and are never shown — their villainy more an idea than a people. But as a man anticipates the worst of terror, his potential death, it is he, one of our heroes, who throws the name of the enemy at one of his own.

War evokes tribalism, primalism even. There is one goal: survival. And even in his most vulnerable and terrified state, Alex states a truth of the matter: “survival isn’t fair.”

The idea calls to mind George (Barry Keoghan), the 17 year old boy sailing with Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s father Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), who is knocked down the stairs to below deck on the Moonstone by the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), bashing his head, incurring brain trauma and dying off screen.

His death is senseless. His death isn’t fair. The Shivering Soldier, a man consumed by his own fear, by his own anticipation of terror, causes George’s death. The burden of such an accident on someone who never intended harm isn’t fair.

But the deck of the Moonstone — where the Shivering Soldier, perhaps the most irredeemable character of Dunkirk, stands — is where we find that other aspect of humanity: togetherness.

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The Moonstone ‘little ship’ in Dunkirk — Warner Bros/Courtesy

As the climax of the filmic Shepard Tone reaches, the film slows down momentarily. At this point, George has fallen and revealed that he can’t see. Peter has attempted to comfort him as much as possible, but can’t do much more.

The Moonstone sails into the climactic battle, rescuing soldiers, Alex among them. Alex ventures below deck and discovers George. Peter frantically says, “Be careful with him.” But Alex replies, “He’s dead, mate.”

Peter pauses to process, and then says, “Well be bloody careful with him.”

Peter looks at his father at the ship’s wheel. The Shivering Soldier, having checked on the boy’s well-being before — to which Peter initially chided him — asks again if the boy will be okay. Peter stares at him. Then, despite just learning of George’s death, he nods.

The moment is among many. A togetherness marks the film with such powerful, purposeful quietude.

Near the beginning of the film, Gibson hands over a container of water, an implied scarcity, to thirsty stranger Tommy. Later on, as the naval destroyer is torpedoed and begins to sink, Gibson nearly jumps over board. But, after hearing the faceless screams of those trapped inside, risks his life to open the door to the interior, saving them. As Gibson gains a spot on a tiny departing boat, while Tommy and Alex are denied access, Gibson slips off a rope so that they may hold on as they row back to shore.

Farrier, low on fuel and turning around to head back to mainland, sees an enemy bomber in his rear mirror as it targets boats below. He’s right there. And no one else is. He turns around.

Tom Hardy Dunkirk

Warner Bros/Courtesy

Despite accusing Gibson of being a spy and nearly forcing him to walk into slaughter, Alex, as their temporary hideaway ship sinks, makes sure to make Gibson aware that they’re escaping. In tragic senselessness, the man who has saved the most lives drowns. But it’s the man who nearly had him killed who tries to help him in the end.

Perhaps the film’s most touching moment can only be recognized in hindsight. Throughout Dunkirk, Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson and his son marvel at the sight of the RAF’s Spitfires.

At one point, Collins’ plane gets shot and he must make an emergency crash into the ocean. Mr. Dawson tracks the crash, steering intently at its site. As the plane downs, Peter tells his dad that there’s no use, that the engine cut and a parachute wasn’t pulled. Mr. Dawson ignores. Peter repeats. Mr. Dawson ignores again. Peter insists. And Rylance superbly delivers his following lines with a sense of desperate helplessness, touched by aching sadness. “I hear you Peter, I hear you,” he yells. He begins to trail off. “Maybe he’s alive.” Even more so. “Maybe we can help him.”

Mark Rylance Dunkirk

Warner Bros/Courtesy

It’s not until the end of the film that we learn that Mr. Dawson’s oldest son, Peter’s brother, was an RAF pilot, but died three weeks into the war. And finally, the moment clicks. As Collins goes down, all Mr. Dawson can see is his oldest son. He wasn’t able to save his son. But maybe he can save Collins. Maybe that can mean something.

There are many more. They may be missed at first, but that’s simply because of the event within which they take place and the fact that they’re not forced.

But both togetherness and senselessness merge and unify. They both come back to the moment with Peter and the Shivering Soldier after George’s death, and the return to England when Peter gets George in the paper as a hero at Dunkirk. In this sense, as he has done so many times before, Nolan tackles the notion of truth, the value of truth. But while he may be questioning it in previous films, stating that, sometimes, truth isn’t for the best, it almost seems like, with Dunkirk, he’s positing that this grand idea of truth is simply impossible.

The film’s multiple perspectives and disjointed structure may never be fully figured out. It’s difficult to tell exactly where everything stands and when — its jaggedness purposeful in disorientation. But that sense evokes this idea that each perspective holds its own truth, its own reality. And like Inception, that may be valid in itself. For the men on the beaches, the RAF left them in the dust. For a pilot like Collins, he fought his own near deadly war. We empathize with the soldier who asks Collins, “Where were you?” But we also empathize with Collins through Mr. Dawson’s lines. Pointing to the Moonstone, he says, “They know where you were.”

The Shivering Soldier has suffered enough. He may be the cause, but he is not to blame for George’s death. His truth is not in George’s death, but rather in his overcoming of his self in the aftermath. And, with it being after his change, his sight of George’s body at the end will only help him come to terms with war.

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Cillian Murphy as the Shivering Soldier in Dunkirk — Warner Bros/Courtesy

For George, he took one step that changed his life. While he may not have made it to Dunkirk, while he may not have been directly involved in saving anyone, that step is a bravery to be rewarded, especially with his death as a result of senselessness and the privilege of the living left behind. His name belongs in the paper because, in that moment, the truth doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is an idea of truth.

And it is the idea of truth that elevates the reading of Winston Churchill’s famous address by young Tommy.

The heroics of war are everywhere. In the leaders, sure. But history will be kind to accomplished leaders, to singular individuals easy to point out.

What Nolan concerns himself with is the heroics of war within the faceless, within the nameless. Men whom history won’t remember as anything other than nameless and faceless. Men who’ve gone through hell and come back. Men who blame themselves, feel ashamed of themselves as Alex does when he first boards the train. Tommy — who represents that merge of togetherness and terror, as he rejects tribalism, but shakes with deep panic beneath the water as bullets fly above — is the face of the faceless. It is all of these men who are deserving of the words of Churchill. It is for them for which they were spoken. So it is one of these men who must read them.

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Fionn Whitehead as Tommy in Dunkirk — Warner Bros/Courtesy

What I’m always interested in with a film is the truth that the filmmaker brings to it. And the details of the truths that Christopher Nolan brings to Dunkirk are profound.

Nolan’s grandfather was a navigator on a Lancaster, a British plane from the Second World War. He didn’t make it out of the war, which calls to mind Tom Hardy’s Farrier. A pilot who, after indescribable, unquantifiable heroics, is captured as his plane crackles ablaze, defiant.

That nature and fate made Nolan’s father obsessively interested in planes and aviation. Nolan’s father passed away a few years ago. At his funeral played a variation of Edward Elgar’s Nimrod, the musical piece which composer Benjamin Wallfisch scores his own variation of for the film’s final minutes.

While watching the film a third time, after I’d learned of Nolan’s father, the stunningly gorgeous shots of Farrier’s Spitfire gliding gracefully above the thousands of cheering soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk hold an unbearably moving truth, a truth that renders capture triumphant, a truth that turns survival into victory, a truth that crafts a heart at the center of Dunkirk and shapes the rest of its humanity throughout.

Grade: 9.7/10