It’s hard to know where and how to start writing about the climax of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. There is so much going on, not only in what’s happening on screen, but also in how everything builds to that point — and that doesn’t even take into account that much of the scene jumps around in time. That it all works, that it all coalesces into an absolutely mesmerizing sight of overwhelming intensity is beyond astonishing.
I define the climax as everything that happens once Hans Zimmer’s “The Oil” starts playing and until it stops. So, that starts right after the little ships arrive, when those on the Moonstone first see the destroyer bombed, and ends when Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is finally pulled up onto the Moonstone as it flees the water on fire.
The climax folds the three storylines on top of each other, amplifying the tension that they’ve individually held throughout the first two-thirds of the movie and producing pure exhilaration immediately. The whole film is essentially crafted as a climax, so this moment is the climax of the climax. It’s almost unfair.
The most effective work the sequence does is a bit subtle, but it’s present from its very first shot: there’s a constant negotiation between the intimate, personal perspective and the massive event, full of masses of people.
As the Moonstone approaches the bombed destroyer, we, through the camera, stand on the boat with them, seeing the huge army ship go down far off in the distance. It’s a raw, human, gripping perspective, the framing of the destroyer through the front window of the Moonstone as terrifying and transfixing for us as it is for Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), whose distraught face we cut to.
The sequence then cuts to shots of the masses of soldiers loading onto the little ships from the beaches. The shots are strangely tranquil, nearly still and holding longer than most shots do, allowing the pure process of the evacuation, and how truly massive it is, to sink in without romanticizing it.
The rest of the sequence is much of the same. If we get, for example, a perspective shot from behind Tommy as he swims through the water to try to find safety on the destroyer, only to realize that it’s sinking — a 12 second shot, which is far longer than most action shots — we get a shot of the tens of soldiers trying to find their way off, sliding down the side of the ship or jumping off before getting trapped underwater.
There are multiple intimate perspectives throughout the sequence: that of Tommy, the Moonstone and Farrier. And there are multiple large scale portions: the soldiers loading from the beach, the soldiers on the sinking destroyer, the soldiers in the water and the soldiers loading onto the boats near the destroyer.
We, the viewer, are disoriented on multiple occasions, seeing the destroyer sink at the beginning of the scene from the Moonstone’s perspective before jumping back in time to see it again from Tommy’s — not to mention that we saw it sink from Farrier’s perspective earlier in the film.
It’s all jarring and chaotic — frantic, desperate bodies filling the screen as they fight to survive. And Hans Zimmer’s “The Oil” only makes it more so, leveraging the Shepard Tone, the illusion of rising tension, while also actually adding layers and volume as the music builds to its own climax. The piece feels invasive, as though it’s taking control of our own bodies, throwing them into the water and forcing them to fight too.
It’s so chaotic because it’s meant to be. It’s so chaotic because the filmmaking is not. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is all-encompassing, immersive, breathtaking and, as said before, perspective-based, placing us into the water, onto the boats and within the cockpit. The sound design is absolutely haunting, a brutalist atmosphere of bodies splashing in water, creaking ships, gunfire, explosions and, most impactfully, screaming voices. The editing is almost balletic, cutting with intensity, but also with fluidity at each turn, rendering the entire sequence into a beauty of movement both in-frame and between frames. And the structural give-and-take is stunning — particularly at the sequence’s climax, when Farrier stops the German bomber only for it to crash into the water and cause the fire, and at the sequence’s release, when a soldier’s life is violently taken in the midst of crackling fire just as Tommy’s life is saved as he’s revealed as the soldier being dragged alongside the escaping Moonstone.
Even with all that’s been said, it’s hard to feel as though I’ve done the sequence justice. There are so many intangible, particularly visual layers to it that can only be absorbed by watching it. I hope that I’ve been able to unpack some aspects of it. But what I’ve written this all for, anyway, is for you to revisit it, for you to give it another watch.
Featured image via Warner Bros.