At the conclusion of Dunkirk, I found myself speechless – a condition of which I am rarely accused. Normally, I would be the last person leaving the theatre, looking for the perfect person to address my "letter" to as the credits roll past. In this case, I wandered out of my seat and bumped into Christopher Redmond, who took what few words I could have uttered out of my mouth: "Hans Zimmer should have gotten top billing."
It’s true. Christopher Nolan has crafted as near to a perfect film as I have seen in a long time. But without your contribution, so singular and yet so utterly woven into the fabric of the narrative as to seem almost a part of historical record itself, Dunkirk would have been merely exceptional. You provide a frenetic, relentless pulse that drives Dunkirk beyond its epic premise and delivers something far closer to sublime.
You gave this film its heartbeat.
I first became aware of your work when I saw Rain Man in 1989. This was around the time when I stopped watching films passively, and began to appreciate their working parts and understand how each piece needs to fit seamlessly into the next in order to deliver a cohesive and satisfying result. As my nascent film critic brain developed, I started paying attention to the names in the credits, and yours came up often. I often listen to your early 90s works for Thelma andLouise and True Romance, two of your lesser known but richly evocative scores. In fact, much of your work can be appreciated on its own, separate from the films for which they were constructed. Dunkirk, however, is beyond anything I anticipated. Anyone who listens to this score for pleasure is surely a masochist.
From its first frame, Dunkirk is a force. It grabs, it demands focus, it does not let up for the whole of its 106 minutes. Separated into three time-lines, which overlap and converge in a unique yet organic way, the narrative spares us the usual tropes of the ragtag band of brothers camaraderie or the romantic longings for life back home. It is pure action, devoid of sweeping sentimentality or blood-lust like other recent war-porn films Hacksaw Ridge or Lone Survivor, and is all the more compelling because of it. The scope of Dunkirk is such that we don’t need to know names, ranks or nationalities, or see bullet-ravaged bodies in slo-mo, to become completely consumed by the character’s struggles. Their goal is survival, anything else is needless window-dressing.
I hesitate to use the oft-repeated promotional nonsense we hear from filmmakers when they say, "the music/city/inanimate object is like another character in the film". No, it’s not. Characters have backstories, and motivations that require action. As pivotal as certain non-human elements of a film may be, they are not characters. But your work in Dunkirk lives and breathes. It is the engine that kicks the pace into gear and never lets up. It thumps, it throbs, it ticks like a clock and pounds like a jackhammer. It is the most stripped down and elemental I’ve ever heard you. It is as expansive, visceral and straightforward as the storytelling itself, a perfect marriage of form and function.
If I had one quibble, it would be that your score overwhelms what little dialogue Nolan’s script provides. But even that can be explained away. Perhaps it was an inadequacy on the theatre’s part, but more likely it was by design (is unintelligible dialogue Nolan’s unofficial director trademark? Ask Tom Hardy). The men on the beaches, in boats, and in the air were likely deafened by ear-bleedingly loud shells, torpedoes and propellers. The whole desperate situation of those stranded on the beach, and those tasked with saving them was ill-conceived and confusing in its own right. Our confusion only adds to the appreciation of the gargantuan undertaking that could have, should have failed.
Christopher Nolan has once again out-performed expectations to deliver a film which isn’t just an experience, it is a work of art. It is the kind of film I could talk about endlessly, and yet I would never be able to fully convey just how or why Dunkirk is such an achievement. This isn’t a film that can merely be seen to be appreciated. It must be heard.