Christopher Nolan’s films confuse me. It’s far from new for blockbusters to treat ‘character work’ as secondary to spectacle – as I’m writing this, the world’s number one film is Godzilla vs Kong – but it’s rare, and really quite special, to see a filmmaker build their style around this choice and yield some honest-to-god emotionally rousing stuff. I’m not sure I even like his films. Yet I can’t deny that when the formula works (as it does in Inception, The Prestige and The Dark Knight), the results get to me; they prove that a film can skimp on its characters and still be powerful and compelling.

But that’s not the end of my confusion, because then there’s 2017’s Dunkirk. For his tenth film, Nolan ditched his usual formula without fixing the character problems, and yet the result doesn’t just survive – it works even better than before. That improbable success is fascinating to me. So with finals upcoming and who knows how long until lockdown ends, what am I gonna do – not try to figure it out?

Let’s start with the usual formula. Nolan characters tend to be defined entirely by a single role: either their in-world jobs, like the thieves of Inception, who each get one-word labels like ‘chemist’ or ‘architect’, or their dramatic role as the embodiment of an ideal the film concerns itself with. The latter sort often come in pairs, as in The Prestige, a cautionary tale about obsession: one of the rival magicians sees and accepts the cost of his obsessions from the start, while the other ignores all warnings and learns of them the hard way. By the end, both have been driven to acts of literal self-destruction, but the one who regrets the damage he’s done to others gets the semblance of a happy ending. There’s something very mechanical about it all.

This approach makes for flat characters – not uninteresting per se, but they don’t exactly talk about much except plot details or personal philosophies, meaning the films crumble if their thematic cores aren’t rock-solid. Another effect is that the characters don’t typically inspire devotion from the audience. I don’t get the impression Nolan really cares about most of his characters, which is why so few get proper epilogues, and why we as viewers aren’t encouraged to fret about their struggles so much as contemplate them. It’s noteworthy that the only enduring fan-favourite his movies have produced is Heath Ledger’s Joker, who doesn’t even appear in The Dark Knight’s closing montage – he’s literally left hanging before the movie’s climax. Bane would get a similar treatment four years later, and Nolan’s leads aren’t given much either. Several of them don’t even have names, such as Tenet’s “Protagonist”.

The emptiness should be engulfing. Instead, when Nolan’s films work, they are spectacular.

His dialogue might sometimes be clunky or thick with exposition, but it’s also narratively efficient, well-performed and fascinating to listen to. Every person is a genius, every monologue a TED talk in miniature covering chaos, dreams, or the structure of magic tricks. Timelines are intercut to raise and answer questions in precise order. Nolan approaches story not as a sequence but as a tapestry, dissolving the usual separation of events in time and space so that we see the full picture all at once and feel the meaning of the characters’ speeches. Nobody wields montage for catharsis quite like him. The nearest thing to it might be Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, which merges two centuries-apart stories until the characters stand side-by-side, grappling with mysteries whose answers can only be seen from the other’s vantage point. Rambling monologues about entropy and rice pudding become commentaries on futility, lost knowledge and the play’s own narrative structure. And in this space, it no longer matters that Stoppard’s or Nolan’s characters are mere playthings, because their words are the only thing that’s important; they are the glue that binds the pretty pictures to their meaning.

Which brings us to Dunkirk: a film that keeps up the symphonic cross-cutting, but with minimal plot and with characters who have no philosophy, to the point they barely even speak. Nor are they any more fleshed-out than usual – on the contrary, it can be hard to tell one baby-faced soldier from another. So we have a Nolan film without the Nolan keystone, and with no apparent substitute. Again – it shouldn’t work.

But once again, it does – this time because a central theme in the film is how war has reduced these people in the exact same fashion. The soldiers in Dunkirk have no soldierly goal; their situation has turned them into a logistics problem, literally a payload stuck at point A that needs moving to point B. And even given a task, they would still be reduced by it, because the goals a soldier pursues are not their own – their targets are picked by context and commanders, for whose purposes one soldier is no different from another. The men of Dunkirk fight for their lives because they want to survive; their commanders want them to succeed partly for that alone, but also because they will be needed for the next battle. Similarly, the threats they face care nothing about their identities. It’s like what gambling expert David Sklansky says in his book The Theory of Poker: “when the cards are dealt, you are no longer a grandson, a friend, or a nice guy; you are a player.”

So unlike Nolan’s other works, where the neglect of character is a by-product of his focus being elsewhere, here his disinterest in the individual is thematically central. The whole film deals with the experience of being reduced by one’s situation to an object, a means – a character in a story that doesn’t care about you. In another Tom Stoppard play, this is what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern experience, realising they exist in Hamlet to complete a single role and then die for reasons they are not destined to understand. And with the experience comes angst, because it reminds them – and reminds us – that the systems within which we exist do not see us the way we see ourselves. That doesn’t mean these systems are right, but it creates friction between our personal and impersonal goals. That, at least in my view, is at the heart of Dunkirk. It’s why the film closes with the crinkle of a newspaper as a young man looks up after reading Churchill’s iconic speech, wondering, ‘What will this mean for me?’

I don’t know how much of this is deliberate. Nolan’s films are packed with self-referential subtext (Film Crit Hulk’s piece on the matter is so comprehensive that I cut several sections of this article when I discovered it, and I’m still worried about being derivative), but it’s hard to argue Dunkirk is Nolan’s conscious commentary on his stylistic shortcomings, when his next project, last year’s Tenet, doubled down on most of them. So perhaps the alignment of style and theme in Dunkirk is a happy accident.

Even if that’s true, however, I like one way it allows the film’s epilogue to be read. Much of the original literature about the angst of feeling ‘reduced’, from existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre, emphasised the role of other people’s gaze in making us feel such a way. But in Dunkirk, it takes being seen for the soldiers to remember they are human. Harry Styles’ Alex dreads the judgemental looks of his compatriots, but their quiet applause is what allows him to leave the French beaches behind. There are limits on what such gestures can do – this past year has seen the British government co-opt one, the Clap for Carers movement, instead of doing its actual duty to essential workers – but Dunkirk, which freely admits to being a tale of colossal military failure, reminds us that treating others with dignity doesn’t need to solve our problems for it to be worthwhile.

In this, it might be one of the warmest war films ever made. And of all people, it came from Christopher Nolan. That’s a twist not even he could have written.

Image Credit: Cassowary Colorizations via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)