Fear is a unique part of the human experience. It is something that both protects us and completely wrecks us. In art, this feeling is portrayed in different ways, whether it be unsettling paintings or anxiety-inducing classical music. Film, because of its combinations of visual and audio elements, is able to portray fear, unlike any other medium. The narrative strength of film can make fear personal and incredibly impressionable.
Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film Dunkirk is what one would call a psychological war film. Even though it echoes the war films before it, such as Apocalypse Now and All Quiet on the Western Front, one thing that separates it from its predecessors and inspirations is it’s psychological intensity and interesting take on fear.
For fans of the usual action war genre, Dunkirk can be irritating. There’s little dialogue and the film relies heavily on its visuals, particularly its cinematography, to connect to the audience. The relation to the audience isn’t traditional either; it’s not a coming of age type of relation or a sentimental connection; it’s an open-ended connection that allows the audience to impose their own fear onto the characters.
Nolan achieves this through the film’s narrative. The entire story is isolated; all we see is the war. We don’t see the before or after, all the audience knows is the event the film centers on. Immediately, the audience is stripped of peace and anything other than the terror we’re about to witness. This boxing-in of the film’s setting creates a dark and altered version of reality, and this same technique is used in Nolan’s other works like The Dark Knight and Inception. This containment of narrative allows the characters to outshine it and move the story forward.
Take the protagonist of the film Tommy, portrayed by Fionn Whitehead. There are no words to describe him, as the audience doesn’t know much about him. The same can be said about the other characters, like Alex, Collins, and Gibson. For the majority of the film, we don’t even know their names. For the entirety of the film, we don’t know their origins. They’re young men fighting a war they don’t want to, and that’s about it.
For some, this can be one of Dunkirk’s biggest faults. The audience doesn’t know much about the characters, why should they care about them? Nolan’s use of anti-character invokes fear in the audience that allows an impersonal story to become personal. Because we don’t know much about the characters or what they’re going through, we impose our fears onto the characters. Our experiences, emotions, and feelings all make their way into the film which therefore creates a greater emotional impact.
Take the oil blast scene as an example. As The Oil by Hans Zimmer plays, the group of boys clings to one another for dear life under burning water. Meanwhile, a civilian older man and his son, whose connection to the war or any of the boys is unknown, attempts to save them from what appears to be inevitable and painful death. Dutch angles and muffled screams suffocate the audience along with the boys and ultimately put this feeling into the audience as well. The fear of experiencing a painful death while a possible loved one attempts to save you is terrifying, and the film’s portrayal of that works effectively to involve the audience in that same feeling.
The ending shows the audience imposing not fear, but sentimentality. The characters don’t have known families, but the audience does. The last shot of the train pulling back into the city, we see people waving and cheering for the wartorn boys, but we don’t know who they are to them. They could be their fathers, their neighbors, their families, or anybody at all. Regardless of who they are, they are people who care about the boys. This perception of emotion is blank and relies purely on the audience. To one person, those people might be their families. To another, they could be neighbors and friends. Whoever we feel is there is who we think is there, which imposes our own emotions into the film’s narrative.
The general lack of character development is Dunkirk’s strength in making the audience as much of a character as the actors are. Tommy at the beginning of the film is not the Tommy we see at the end of the film, but how exactly he changes is unclear. He may be more brave or possibly less brave. His relationship with the supporting character of Alex is surface level, leaving the depth of feelings for one another open to interpretation. We don’t see Tommy leave the train and his reactions to most events in the film are generic and almost predictable. He is an everyman, and his lack of defining characteristics allows him to be anybody. He is whoever the audience thinks of him to be.
Dunkirk’s unique use of perspective separates it from the war films of its time. The anxiety presents isn’t done through intense CGI or forcing the audience to experience technology of some sort, but rather through a blank slate narrative that allows the audience to illustrate their own emotions on it. The narrative driven by the anti-characters and everymen allows the audience to impose their own feelings and let each individual viewer’s interpretation to drive the film’s emotional message. This not only allow the film to reach further than beautifully stylized wartime action scenes but also allows it to show the psychological effects of war in an impactful way. Fear is what drives our lives, and it is also what drives Dunkirk.