'Dunkirk' Is Christopher Nolan's Biggest Trick - Not His Best
Acclaimed director Christopher Nolan has once again used time and score to trick his audience into believing he can tell a story.

SkyNews, 31 July 2017
By Duarte Garrido

Dunkirk's box office dominance makes it director Christopher Nolan's biggest trick, but not his best.

"Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts," Michael Caine coyly whispers in 'The Prestige', explaining how the magician "takes the ordinary something and makes it into something extraordinary".

This is Christopher Nolan's ultimate goal: to trick the audience into believing something is happening when it isn't.

To do that, he uses Hans Zimmer's daunting score to keep us all on the edge of our seats, expensive IMAX cameras to draw us closer and timeline jumps to keep us going back and forth.

But why all the spectacle?

Mainly, to distract us from the fact that he can't write dialogue, direct actors or grasp the subtleties of modern film.

His tricks may have fooled me in the past. 'The Prestige', Nolan's biggest achievement, works because it is the subject of its own trick.

But repeating that trick over and over has made it dull and predictable.

In 'Dunkirk', Nolan and Zimmer refer to a sound illusion called the Shepard Scale, to trick audiences into believing something is about to happen, simultaneously ascending and descending in tone to confuse its listener. The technique is nothing new, and consists of superimposing sound waves to give the feel of growing tension leading to nothing.

This was used in all three 'Batman' films, 'Inception', 'Interstellar' and now 'Dunkirk'.

Pull a rabbit out of a hat enough times, and we'll eventually realise the sleight of hand.

"Now you're looking for the secret," Caine continues in the film, over-explaining things in typical Nolan fashion. "But you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled."

This time, I refused to be fooled, and decided to look closely.

While watching 'Dunkirk', I ignored the soundtrack, dismissed Wally Pfister's trademark cinematography - which is now being reproduced by Hoyte Van Hoytema - and focused on the characters, the dialogue, the acting and the storyline.

The conclusion I came to was not new. It had already hit me during the mind-numbing three hours of 'Interstellar': Christopher Nolan destroys great actors.

In 'Dark Knight Rises', Nolan acted like a true caped crusader and "killed" the film's two villains in their final moments.

Tom Hardy's menacing and convincing Bane was reduced to a foolish puppet, and Marion Cotillard's vengeful assassin was given the least convincing death in modern cinema.

In 'Interstellar', during the director's breathtaking quest to explain the film's plot over and over, he reduces Anne Hathaway's brilliant scientist to a lovebird and makes Jessica Chastain scream "Eureka!" while throwing paper in the air.

This kind of cringeworthy corniness is present again throughout 'Dunkirk', when Kenneth Branagh whispers "home" looking at civilian ships arriving on shore, or when Mark Rylance gravely praises his son for forgiving a traumatised soldier.

Most of all, they're present during Harry Styles' terribly written, worst performed, final scene when, after stupidly misreading a blind man's capacity to see, Styles realises he is not perceived as a coward - but as a hero.

This is terrible. Terrible.

It's the sort of script closure you'd expect to find in a 1930s Technicolor romance. It's old news now. We've grown past it, evolved into more subtle style of writing and directing - where things don't need to be shouted in our faces for us to grasp them.

'Dunkirk' is doing well in the box office. Not as well as his previous films, but well enough to keep his IMAX partnership going.

The mixed reviews will likely not hinder Nolan, who faced the same with 'Interstellar' and 'Inception' before. But I won't clap anymore. Because, as Michael Caine finally concludes in 'The Prestige', every magic trick needs a third act - and that is the hardest part.

"Making something disappear isn't enough," he says. "You have to bring it back."

Back to Dunkirk page | Back to Articles Listing | Back to the Compendium