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'Dunkirk' keeps viewers on edge

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The sound of a ticking clock comes out and in throughout Dunkirk.

The clock never strikes, but the sound persists as the body count grows and the odds of surviving the titular French town shrink hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second. Ticking down closer and closer until a few minutes before the movie ends at an unexpected moment. It indicates the terror and mayhem the characters have survived has come to an end, at least for the moment. The ticking clock is difficult to ignore because of how it hangs over the fates of Dunkirk's characters. This is a movie in which every character is at risk of drowning or getting taken out by a few random potshots or even getting caught in friendly fire, as is the case with what amounts to the movie's main character, a lowly private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead).

He's not the prototypical lead for a war movie, more fragile and reedy than the square-built stars the genre is built upon. Yet he does make a lot of sense for this movie, his actions to survive the carnage around him indicative of the mindset of the soldiers at the time. It's difficult to fault a guy like Tommy for cheating his way to safety amid a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as the friends he meets in his encounters begin to die gruesome, PG-13 deaths.

The clock ticks on though in a fittingly unnerving fashion as Tommy's chances of survival shrink accordingly. It is the advantage of having someone as average as Tommy be the center of attention; the fact that he's not particularly notable means he's just as likely to end up in the bottom of the sea or with a few bullets around him as the other soldiers. Even as time ticks away and the fear and the body count rises, the story of Dunkirk qualifies as a feel-good story. In the hands of many directors and writers it would be just that, focusing on the strength, vigor and how indomitable the English spirit truly is. Writer/director Christopher Nolan indulges in that a little toward the end, but he never loses sight of the dangers the troops faced in the hours, days, minutes before the evacuation finished.

The clock, courtesy of Hans Zimmer's score, ticks down, down, down as the many paths to safety and salvation are blown up in the faces of the broken soldiers. Hope is always around the corner in Dunkirk, but it becomes more and more difficult to see and harder and harder to believe in. A lot happens in Dunkirk in a remarkably short amount of time. This is an amazingly lean World War II movie, with a run time of less than two hours and with the dialog is sparse and the bloodshed on screen is minimal. There are a lot of bodies though, the corpses of soldiers floating in the ocean off the coast of France not too far away from home or becoming engulfed in flame after a well-targeted German torpedo. The blood isn't necessary to convey the atrocities of the situation; showing the faces of the thousands of soldiers stuck on a beach surrounded by Germans is more than adequate to express the horrors of the situation.

Nolan just doesn't require the bloat of a traditional war movie to tell his story effectively, doesn't require a traditional star studded cast (Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, and, randomly enough, Harry Styles are the most famous names in this movie) to get the point across. Even the action sequences - excellently staged and wildly effective - are quick and efficient, with any elements of CGI blending seamlessly with the live action.

Nolan doesn't need a lot to make a great war movie; engaging action and a ticking clock will more than suffice. It's all horribly effective, a thriller/horror movie masking as a war movie to sneak up on the audience and keep them lost in the action. Nolan throws in a non-linear story to aid in that little trick of deception, leading viewers down one story path while jumping back in time to events that happen in another before all the players converge at the end.

The result is a dizzying experience, with the ticking clock the only thing keeping the stories tethered for a long period of time. That the sounds of fate represent the closest thing to comfort viewers have while watching Dunkirk reflects how horrifying this movie is, as well as how effective Nolan is at manipulating viewers. They, like the soldiers, are never in control. Rating: Four and a half out of five stars Ask Away Target audience: People who like World War II movies and/or Christopher Nolan. Take the whole family?: It's going to scare the heck out of kids, so stick around the recommended age rating. Theater or Netflix?: Theater is a good option for this. The IMAX experience even proved to be a worthwhile addition to the viewing experience. Is this a new shift for Christopher Nolan?: Not really. His last few movies have been big box office movies with star power and loaded with special effects, but his roots are in these small, atmospheric movies. Movies like Insomnia and Memento put their emphasis on mood and intensity, maintaining a certain level of confusion and allowing a sense of fatalism to guide the action. Dunkirk blends the big budget flicks with those smaller movies, putting it right on par with The Prestige. Watch this as well?: Saving Private Ryan has less intensity but a greater amount of brutality than Dunkirk. Mixing the two provides a pretty solid look at the horrors of war. Rating: PG-13 Run time: 106 minutes Genre: Action

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