Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is the latest film in a grand tradition of cinema that blurs the line between being an artist and being a romantic partner. It examines the elements of passion, control, dedication, and commitment that are common to both love and the creative process, and in so doing it joins a fine list of films ranging from the charming likes of Shakespeare In Love, to the visionary romantic dysfunction of 8 ½, to the heart-palpitating phantasmagoria of this year’s mother!. Also like mother!, Phantom Thread is a film about an artist weighing the all-consuming needs of his artistry against the needs of another human being, and if I say that Daniel Day Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock is at least a marginally less selfish partner than Javier Bardem’s messianic poet in mother!, then that may be the year’s most damning faint praise. The key difference I find between those two films is that I do not believe mother! Is really about love in any substantial way. It is in the nature of that film for the artist’s ego and obsession with creating to utterly drown out the slightest hint of romance. By contrast, I think that Phantom Thread is absolutely about love, even more than it is about the struggles of an artist. Phantom Thread is a keen look at the rhythms and pitfalls of a new romance and, at the risk of overselling this too much, it is also subtly very funny. In telling the love story between a celebrated dressmaker and the gently headstrong waitress who comes waltzing in to his neatly arranged life, Paul Thomas Anderson finds a rich, crackling energy beneath a pristine world of elegant decorum and self-serious craft. Love is an effervescent, discombobulating whirlwind in Phantom Thread and, while it does have a lot of insight into the rigors and superstitions of an artist’s work, the artistic process is also largely here to be the apple cart that romance jostles. Phantom Thread is a deliriously lavish, meticulously composed, sumptuously costumed British period piece and it uses its gorgeously ornate surfaces as a kind of contrast to the brash, unpretentious, blithely unfussy blush of swooning romance. It is a film whose lovely, old-fashioned sheen exists both to be admired for its surface beauty and to be ever so sweetly punctured.
The period of Phantom Thread is 1950s London, where a world-renowned dressmaker named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis, giving a dependably tremendous dramatic performance punctuated with sly comedic notes) is the toast of womens fashion. He is a man of soft-spoken haughtiness; intense, unflaggingly confident in his skills as an artist, yet also given to temperamental fits of frustration and doubt. He is a rich portrait of the most exacting kind of artist, while also feeling ever so slightly like a keen satire of a certain breed of talent. Reynolds is a believable, multi-faceted depiction of the genius diva archetype, with just a sprinkle of self-aware skewering. The House of Woodcock, the multi-story London studio where he lives and works, is a pristine sanctum to his rigid, well-honed routine. The guardian of that sacred routine is his sister Cyril (the great Lesley Manville, softly terse, quietly acerbic, and very funny), a no-nonsense woman who oversees the traffic of deadlines, appointments, and people that streams in and out of Reynolds’ busy, posh life. Part of that job involves ushering out Reynold’s latest brief romantic fling whenever he inevitably tires of her. Cyril’s job is to indulge her brother through his wild swings between inspiration, melancholy, and petty outrage. On the evening after a successful fashion show, Reynolds sits with Cyril in their favorite restaurant, cautiously pleased with the show, wistfully longing for his dear, late mother, and unhappily at a loss for what to do with the latest paramour to wear out her welcome. With the nonchalant professionalism of a woman who has dealt with this a hundred times before, Cyril tells Reynolds she will show the unfortunate lady the door and sends him off for a brief holiday in the English countryside to recharge his mental, emotional, and artistic faculties. Reynolds speeds his sleek, gleaming Bristol 405 down Britain’s narrow country lanes and through the night, and ends up on an idyllic village on the Yorkshire seaside by morning. He stops at a hotel restaurant for an impressively large breakfast, which he orders from a shy, soft-spoken waitress with rosy cheeks, a slender physique and a Belgian accent. She blushes as he speaks to her. Before the check has been paid, the intensely self-possessed Reynolds has convinced her to have dinner with him at his country house. Her name is Alma (Vicky Krieps, a relatively unknown Belgian actress who does brilliant work and, by the film’s very design, steals scenes from Daniel Day Lewis in what is allegedly the swansong performance of his career). They have a fine meal of fish and wine. He tells her about his mother, his career, and his penchant for sewing secret messages and small totems into the linings of his work. He has a blunt, domineeringly forward way with her from the start. He has her remove her lipstick so he can better see her true face. After supper, he brings her downstairs to his workshop where he takes her measurements. Entering into a relationship with him will mean entering into a relationship with his work as well. Cyril arrives halfway through with her usual knowing half-smile, and the two siblings methodically size up the young woman who will soon become the latest in House Woodcock’s ever rotating queue of romantic partners. “You have no breasts,” he tells her with clinical detachment, before helpfully reassuring her, “You’re perfect. My job is to give you some.” We see Reynolds Woodcock is a talented, fascinating, and all but impossible man. His attention is always tuned first to his own voice, then to Cyril’s. And of course the majority of his energies go to the clients and to the dresses. His romantic partners get whatever little bit is left over. What is curious to see is that Alma notices his maddening drive and his brusque manner almost immediately. She chooses to fall for him in spite of it and because of it, but she also maintains a quiet resilience in the face of it. She weathers his commands and insults, but she will not allow herself to be made a silent partner in the relationship. “Stand normally,” he curtly says. She calmly says she is. With annoyance, he explains he meant to stand up straight. “Yes, well, you didn’t say that,” she shoots back with a soft frustration to match his own. Phantom Thread is a wondrous, clever melodrama and the joy comes from watching this relationship unfold, but there is a simplicity to this film once you have seen where it goes. It is really just the story of an artist walled in to a life of routine and how the woman he falls in love with enters into that sterile, meticulous space. It is about Alma entering into this prestigious, pristine house of rules and manners and walking through it with her own stubborn, clumsy grace. It goes to some dramatically unhinged places before all is said and done, but it is a love story through and through. All the gripping intrigue, intense conflict, and testy power upheavals are there to act as both an operatically pitched commentary on the challenges of any relationship and a blackly comic satire about what love does to the human ego. Phantom Thread is both the lush, emotionally fraught, old-fashioned melodrama it appears to be and a slyly winking send-up of the same. It sets up its fancy pretensions to luxuriate in them and to irreverently topple them. Like love itself, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is swooning, intense, and just a little bit absurd.
Phantom Thread is a decadent, luminous, crystalline ode to the many facets of love. One way it is wise is in presenting love as a disruption to the status quo of a person’s life. Paul Thomas Anderson is smart enough to let us become swept up in all that tradition and routine just as Alma is. He lets us be bewildered and enchanted by the dazzling sheen of it all. This is a painstakingly groomed world of delicate fabrics and brittle decorum. And beyond what all this says about how new love can upend the structures we spend years carefully erecting around ourselves, Reynolds Woodcock’s precise little Faberge egg of a world is just a beautiful little object to behold and marvel over. Anderson weaves this tasteful, dapper fashion world with glee, relishing the chance to make the most formally old fashioned film of his career, but in a way that feels as boldly intoxicating as one would expect from the director of There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights. Instead of showy cinematic pyrotechnics, Anderson instead focuses on images so rich with color and texture that you feel full just from looking at them. This rich soufflé of a film does not rewrite any of the recipes. Instead, it just replaces the onions with the most expensive shallots money can buy and uses three times more butter than the cookbook calls for. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood (a frequent collaborate with Anderson) ties this glowing, perfumed package together with a swelling score of piano and strings that is both sophisticated and sometimes perversely grandiose. It is a world of linens and silks, shiny sports cars, gleaming white penthouses, diamond tiaras, and delicious cuisine. It is important we see the minutest detail of this fussed over universe. It is a world designed by a man with great wealth, impeccable taste, and an unyielding sense for how and where everything should be if he is to continue operating at the peak of his powers. He loves big breakfasts eaten quietly, dislikes meals cooked in too much butter, and detests the word “chic”. Everything about this world, including Reynolds himself, is carefully put together with not a thread out of place. And it is not to say Alma’s arrival changes Reynolds’ ability to eat a scone with raspberry jam and Lapsang tea every morning, or throws the glitz of his lifestyle into any knde of jeopardy at all. But the very presence of a newcomer who doesn’t intuitively grasp the finest detail of his strictly programmed schedule is enough to throw Reynolds Woodcock into a tizzy. It is the very notion of having to change anything for another person that vexes him. Phantom Thread is about a self-labeled bachelor who has seemingly never kept a romance for more than a few months suddenly finding a person he may really want to keep. And it is about him frantically looking for any justification to be done with it. “He’s like a spoiled, little baby,” Alma confides with bemusement to a friend. Love means allowing some small change into our lives. Somewhere deep in his soul, Reynolds must know it is not any one shakeup to his process that is bothering him. It is a thin-skinned irritation at the idea of having to make any change, any compromise whatsoever.
To be clear though, while the opulent, manicured world of House of Woodcock may at first seem like a cold, domineering fortress, the film’s true immovable object, and I would also say its primary protagonist, turns out to be Alma. What makes Phantom Thread such an invigorating and darkly sweet film is that it is about the act of being bold and defiant with your love. Reynolds has spent decades with no change and no real dissenting voice outside of Cyril’s, who has learned to only press him cautiously in ways that will not disturb his fragile, artistic temperament. Alma is not explicitly out to upset her new love but she has the courage to be utterly herself in love. When she tells Reynolds she does not care for a fabric he is using, he and Cyril both balk. He spits that she has no taste, but she fearlessly replies that she likes her own taste. “Maybe some day you’ll change,” Reynolds mutters wearily. “Maybe not,” Alma replies with serenely unflappable confidence. After Reynolds throws a fit over Alma taking her breakfast too noisily, Cyril offers that she should probably just acquiesce to his preferences. Alma shakes her head, “I think he’s too fussy.” Cyril stares back with a look that conveys both amused surprise and a bewilderment at such a novel idea. To live in Reynolds’ world is ostensibly to tread lightly and to conform to his whims, because he is the great, put upon artist; because it is England circa 1950 and he is a powerful, respected man. Alma loves him steadfastly, but she will not become a tongue-tied mannequin in Reynolds Woodcock’s shop window. “I respect your advice, Cyril,” she later tells her future in-law, “but I have to know him in my own way.” Phantom Thread is a complex, nuanced picture of the joys, trials, and indignities of bonding yourself to another person, but I think it is also of Alma’s refreshingly straightforward state of mind. Loving someone is a choice you make. And no one, even and especially the subject of your affections, can dictate how you do it.
That is not to say that Phantom Thread thinks that one should refuse to ever budge in romance. The important distinction between Alma and the Reynolds Woodcock we first meet is that Reynolds recoils at the idea of having to do any bowing or bending. Alma is fiercely true to her self and to her need to love in a way that is free and open, but she is not unwilling to let love alter who she is. I have never believed in the axiom that you should never change for another person. Any life experience is an occasion to grow and change, and a deep love is one of the most soul-shaking life experiences one can ever have. Alma is not resistant to all of Reynolds’ rules and customs. She simply refuses to be a passive spectator in her own love story. She wants to change for Reynolds, insofar as that metamorphosis does not diminish her integrity. She dearly wants to become joined to this man, but the notion that this should mean completely submerging her sense of self into his strikes her as ridiculous and also rather counter-intuitive. What real good are we to the ones we love if we do not bring our own personhood to the table? Alma is active and engaged in a way that frequently perturbs Reynolds, but she is not simply trying to rattle his windows. She may chafe at the House of Woodcock’s occasionally stifling protocol, but she also very much loves the House, just as she loves the man. She speaks with joy about helping Reynolds with his work, blushes with earnest pride when she gets to help model his dresses, and reacts in protective rage when a boorish heiress makes a drunken spectacle while wearing one of his fashions. “It’s your work,” she seethes tearfully. I think Phantom Thread is about holding on to a sense of yourself fin love, while also eagerly picking up the burden of another person’s dreams and fears. When a Belgian princess comes to the House of Woodcock to be fitted for her royal wedding dress, Alma walks politely but nonchalantly up to her and introduces herself. “I live here,” she says proudly. Phantom Thread is fundamentally a film about being unafraid in love; about making your love a space that you own are proud to spend your days in. As long as you are with a person, you have the right to make your home in their heart and to assert your place there. For all its heightened melodrama, Paul Thomas Anderson’s grand, woozy, decadent film is really a sweet, simple, and sharp ode to the strange dance of courtship; to the art of changing for another person in the right ways.
Phantom Thread comes at love from a lot of angles, but its stance is largely curious and empathetically quizzical. It is a film whose tones are often cerebral, arch, and pitch-black, but it nevertheless is never less than wholly compassionate. It sees romance as a fascinating, powerful, fickle, and mysterious force. Beneath its billowing score and almost dauntingly elegant compositions is a real, beating heart. With deference to Anderson’s terrific Punch Drunk Love, I believe this is the most unabashedly romantic film of his career. It is a stately, impeccably sculpted film about finding real, squishy emotion somewhere deep inside a stately, impeccably sculpted world. In its deliriously wicked conclusion, it manages to get to true love in a thoroughly demented way. In that moment, it proclaims that there are few wrong ways to find love with another person. Love is strange, enigmatic, and nebulous, and as long as you and your partner understand each other, nothing is really off limits. The rules of love are an ever evolving contract between the parties. Romance is a delightful, frustrating, frightening, revelatory conversation between souls for as long as they want to go on having that dialogue. This is Paul Thomas Anderson skewering the follies of artistic and relational pride, and honoring the value of working with a partner. Giving part of yourself to someone can be a scary and occasionally uncomfortable process, especially when you have become very accustomed to creating alone. But there is value in finding someone who challenges our spirits and bucks the wisdom that we have spent years following. What good are life and art if we are never pushed to change? Where would humankind be without collaboration?
Solace is a concept I think about a lot. I think 2017 was an emotional thunderstorm for a lot of people. The idea of finding some way to soothe oneself or, failing that, just distract oneself from whatever pain, fear, or anxiety they are enduring probably feels pretty topical right now. It is topical, but it’s also been a perennial fixation for me for a lot of years. I think about solace in the bad times and the good times as well. I consider myself an optimist, a sentimentalist, and a general lover of life. Somewhere in the deepest recesses of my heart lives a beaming, bounding, insufferably happy-go-lucky Roberto Benigni spirit. I let him pay his rent in cured meats and baguettes, with the understanding that he will only publicly embarrass me on rare occasions. I am anything but a miserablist, but dear God do I give a lot of thought to the idea of needing solace. Not because life is bad or because I am any kind of tortured soul, but simply because life is a lot. Regardless of what your personal, physical, medical, relational, or economic circumstances are, I hold to empathy for anyone who is, or has ever been, alive and breathing on this planet. Because, in all its rapture and agony, existence and consciousness are just an awful lot to experience, process, and bear. And for that reason, the idea of finding some piece of solace, some small comfort, to see you through this thing, be it a masterpiece of art or the world’s most effervescently disposable beach read (and, really, I hope we are all getting a healthy helping of both, and everything in between) strikes a huge chord with me. Very few movies better captured the value of finding some measure of comfort in the art one loves than Terence Davies’ beautiful, intimate, bracingly honest Emily Dickinson biography, A Quiet Passion. No 2017 film better conveyed life as an avalanche of joy and woe, never entirely free of strife yet never completely bereft of humor and happiness; as an alternatingly sweet and gutting rush. A swift, sometimes frightening current that sweeps us along, in which we simply do our best to cling to what is beautiful and heartening. In telling the simple story of one poet’s life, Davies’ film deftly evokes the full emotional gamut of being, while delivering two of the year’s most luminous and subtle performances and serving up one of the year’s most deliciously eloquent screenplays. A Quiet Passion emerges as the rare biographical film that shakes off the dust of history, crackles with real energy, and seamlessly attunes itself to the lifeforce of its subject.
A Quiet Passion opens with a terrific scene that concisely and memorably captures the gently defiant soul of its great American poet subject. The year is 1848 and it is the last day of the second semester at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. A terse, sharp headmistress is giving a closing lecture on Christianity to a room full of adolescent women. She demands that any girl who wants to come to the Lord and find salvation move to the right side of the room. Then she instructs all the girls who hope attain Christian salvation one day to step over to the left side of the room. When all the feet have stopped shuffling, only one young woman is left standing in the center of the hall: a self-possessed, coolly confident redhead of eighteen years of age named Emily. The seminary instructor scowls at this immovable object of a girl and curls her lip in disgust. She reprimands her for her impertinence and then asks her, “Are you in the Ark of Safety?” Emily calmly and bluntly replies, “I fear that I am not.” The Emily Dickinson we meet and come to know is indefatigably resistant to a society intent on foisting its dogmas and mores upon her, particularly those of the Christian church. On this day in 1848, Emily is taking her leave of Mount Holyoke and waiting for her family to whisk her back to the warmth of their family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her rescue party consists of her warm, slightly domineering attorney father, Edward (Keith Carradine, very good), her eldest brother Austin (played in youth by Benjamin Wainwright and as an adult by Duncan Duff), and her demurely good-humored little sister Vinnie (Rose Williams in youth, and as an adult by the great Jennifer Ehle, in a performance of beautiful subtlety and compassion). Before returning to Amherst, the Dickinsons make a stop in Boston to pick up their Aunt Elizabeth, a devoutly religious older woman with an excitably conservative temperament. The Dickinson children seem to delight in making Aunt Elizabeth clutch her pearls. As the family agnostic, Emily feels a particular duty to stand firm in the face of Aunt Elizabeth’s pious judgment. While Emily is a proud free-thinker, however, we also gather that she is not challenging her aunt merely for the sake of puckish provocation. There is an unspoken sense that she sees an intellectual foil in this family member. Emily is a young woman who thinks often of death and despairs of the knowledge that she will one day lose people close to her; even this fussy, prickly aunt whose beliefs are so very different from her own. Before Aunt Elizabeth leaves the family, likely for the last time, Emily earnestly gushes, “I hope you live for a hundred years!” Aunt Elizabeth looks flummoxed. “What a repellent idea!,” she gasps. “I am not afraid to die, Emily, and neither should you be.” In the next scene, the Dickinson family poses to have their photographs taken and we watch their faces rapidly age on camera. Some fifteen years hurtle by in an instant. A Quiet Passion is the story of a woman who, even at a tender age, felt there was precious little time. She was a brilliant poet, a witty iconoclast, and also a fairly modest, self-effacing woman. Emily Dickinson quietly defied the traditional values of her time, but she also cherished the small comforts of a life spent at home. She would live all her days within the walls of the family house in Amherst until her death from kidney disease at the age of fifty-five. Outside of the deaths of the Dickinson parents and the sudden, rude interruption of the Civil War, A Quiet Passion is not a film of seismic plot developments, which is rather the point. It is about the Emily Dickinson and itthe people who formed the main cast of her uneventful but spirited life. Chief among those characters is Vryling Buffham, a frank, sardonic woman with a knack for tartly skewering the antiquated social norms and arbitrary fender rules her New England peers so cautiously tiptoe around. This makes her a fast friend to Emily. A Quiet Passion is about being an independent thinker and a woman during America’s first century, and how one woman’s intelligence, morbidity and scintillating wit made that experience more vibrant while also making the repressiveness harder to stomach. Terence Davies’ film is a beautiful, rich, and witty character study, and it is also in many ways a phenomenally sad one. It is the story of a woman who lived a seemingly slight existence, but it carries a mighty undertow of feeling. A Quiet Passion throbs with the full emotional spectrum of life. It visits a very mannered time and place and finds a messy cornucopia of colors there. It is a biography and a period piece that digs under the surfaces of its genres to find deep truth, lovely human connection, and sharp humor.
The biographical picture is a notoriously tricky genre to pull off with any real artfulness. Too often, even truly skilled directors get sucked into the trap of being rotely informative to the point where they neglect to evoke the true spirit of their subject. One of the great modern examples of how to get at a biographical subject’s essence is Todd Haynes’ 2007 Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There, which portrays the famously enigmatic and opaque Dylan as five different characters with different names, one played by Cate Blanchett. That highly stylized, subjective approach was well-suited to an elusive self-stylist like Bob Dylan. What impresses me about Terence Davies’ work on A Quiet Passion is that Emily Dickinson is a significantly less flashy figure. Davies and his brilliant leading performer have taken on the challenge of capturing a dazzling mind that lay humbly in the package of a modest, self-critical woman; an assertive woman, but one with little outward vanity. This was a person whose renown as a poet would not arrive until decades after her death. A Quiet Passion is an astonishingly assured portrait of Emily Dickinson as a woman of unfussy, unadorned integrity, and rendering that kind of person in a way that feels cinematic is about as difficult a feat as I can imagine. Davies makes his highly verbal film just as visually distinct as it needs to be. The memorable images are subtle but strikingly effective. He establishes young Emily as a fearless guardian of her principles by introducing her as the lone figure facing down a room full of authoritarian zealots. A beautiful circular pan around the Dickinson’s dimly lit family room, containing every member of the family, wordlessly captures how much Emily treasures her loved ones and how overcome she is by the ache that she will one day lose them. A haunting sequence shows the older, reclusive Emily sitting alone in her dark bedroom as a dapper male silhouette ascends the stairs. This man that she patiently waits for could be the elusive, noble man who could love her and still respect her agency. It could be the God she has doubted throughout her life at last revealing Himself and easing her mortal fears. Or it could be Death, the phantom figure that constantly occupied her thoughts and became one of the great muses of her poetry. Of the three suitors, the third was the only one she was certain would one day visit her. A Quiet Passion is a film whose time, place, and subject matter promise poise and restraint. But while this is often a very restrained film, it is remarkable how completely alive it is, from its lovely, fallible characters to its expressive dialogue. Rather than feeling suffocating, the traditional period setting only makes Emily Dickinson and those in her orbit feel even more vibrant in contrast.
That said, while I deeply admire how visually dynamic A Quiet Passion is, the film is certainly most satisfying as a decadent smorgasbord of words. The dialogue in the film is insightful, poignant, acerbic, funny, and sometimes devastating. As he did with 2016’s Sunset Song, Terence Davies has made a film that feels both lushly cinematic and utterly literary. Emily Dickinson found solace from the heartache of her short, spartan life in the written word: poetry, rigorous philosophical discussion, and spirited games of sparkling wordplay. Some of my favorite moments in cinema this year were just watching Emily and Vryling Buffham trade quips and droll observations about religion, art, and society, as Vinnie listened with a bemused smile, delighted to watch the game and uncertain if she should jump in. As an aside, I could honestly write a full paragraph or more on how much I love the characterization of Emily’s winningly smart, quietly supportive, and ineffably sympathetic little sister. As a thing of pure writerly beauty, A Quiet Passion is unquestionably one of 2017’s great scripts. It is both biting and graciously humane. In sum, it possesses that quality that Emily Dickinson herself strove for throughout her life: spirited, unflinching honesty. Emily Dickinson was a poet with a voracious appetite for language, a love of the world’s beauty, and an unshakable fixation with her own mortality. She saw the world in lovely, rich hues, but she also saw those hues fading away into oblivion before her eyes. In its snippets of poetry, its dryly sophisticated banter, and its heart-rending, masterfully acted scenes of sorrow and loss, Terrence Davies has bottled the pure essence of what I feel when I read an Emily Dickinson poem. The feeling of a soul too taken with the vivacity of life to be classified as simply morbid, yet too conscious of life’s impermanence not to glimpse it in the background of the sunniest day. A Quiet Passion is a film as lovely, invigorating, and briskly chilling as a gust of New England wind. It takes what could have been a stuffy biography and infuses it with so much depth and bruising emotion that it becomes impossible to think of it in the same ossified category as films like Gandhi or Ray. This is no Emily Dickinson biopic, but a visual poem about the power and limitation of words. Their ability to shine a light into the darkness of existence and their powerlessness to repel death. A Quiet Passion is a rumination on life as something wonderful, heady, painful, and brief, dedicated to a literary talent who saw the world in all those lights.
I am by no means an Emily Dickinson scholar, but there is a subtle, soft-spoken kind of dynamism to A Quiet Passion that feels utterly in keeping with the works of hers that I have read. It is a film with an appetite for life and a feeling of hushed awe for death. The sense one gets from the film and Nixon’s staggeringly great performance is of a woman who had a lot of uncertainty about what waits after death, but who felt it was more important to hold true to her own moral and intellectual compass than to betray it out of fear for her soul. Her defiance was not so much a denial of that fear as it was a resolve to endure in the face of it. This is a film about defiance as a beautiful act of self-expression. The film itself is not trying to prove or disprove the existence of God or resolve any other grand cosmic questions. It is simply a salute to a woman who felt she had no answers to such questions and refused to be coerced into avowing what she did not know. A Quiet Passion has a deep admiration for Emily Dickinson as a woman who felt it was right to guard a private space in your mind and soul, and to stand firm in that place. Whatever we believe is part of the wonderful freedom given to us as human beings, and the only sure wrong choice we can make is to not decide for ourselves. When Emily resists kneeling in Christian fealty, her father sternly admonishes her, “Your soul is no trivial matter.” Emily responds, “I agree. That is why I am so meticulous in guarding its independence.” The Emily Dickinson of this film is a stubborn soul, but her defiance is not snide or petulant. It is the humble, thoughtful steadiness of a spirit that hopes to be moved, but refuses to be pushed. A Quiet Passion is a tender, clear-eyed love letter to a graciously unyielding kind of rebel. It is an alternatingly warm and unsparing portrait of an artist who faced the slings and arrows of sexism and theological dogma and, with scarcely a hint of acrimony, would not cede ground to them. This is a beautiful reminder that, while society needs its fiery iconoclasts and brazen punks, rebellion can also be a quiet and personal act. Firebrands come in many shape and sizes and A Quiet Passion shows us a great American firebrand whose flame was no less incendiary for burning surely and steadily. The glorious smile of flickering in Cynthia Nixon’s eyes as her Emily prepares to once again eloquently defend the battlements of her spirit is simply a marvelous, inspiring thing to watch for any free-thinker. With due respect to Mildred Hayes’ fine, profanity-laden tirades in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I consider Emily Dickinson to be the bold, uncompromising heroine that 2017 deserves.
While Emily Dickinson found her solace in poetry, I left the film feeling that she also found it within herself. Or perhaps finding solace in a piece of art is fundamentally the same thing as locating it in your own soul. We can take in a poem or a book or a film and have it resonate with us, but I think that resonance only occurs once we have internalized those words or images, repeating them within ourselves. A Quiet Passion is about facing down a sometimes harsh world and doing what you can to take sustenance from what is around you; pulling from the best parts of life and using those bits of beauty and humor and maybe even sadness to stoke a fire within yourself. And I think the film is also about the limits of solace. Emily Dickinson lived a very modest life. She found no romantic companionship. She met with the derision of those who found her too eccentric, too crassly forward, or lacking in the submissive demureness expected of women in her time. She listened on as condescending voices dismiss the great women writers of the day as maudlin or gloomy. She watched works of genius be waved away with the tired, sexist cliche that female authors were too stridently emotional. She died at an early age with precious few works published and no sign of recognition from the world around her. She waited for some hint of the posterity she deserved, but the unaccountable cur never came calling. She would not live to see her own vindication. And all of that hardship and pain and downright unfairness cannot be simply washed clean by solace; by saying that Emily found some beauty in the world as if that could somehow undo the strife she weathered. It puts me in a familiar, conflicted place as a self-professed optimist. It feels cheap to pretend like solace amounts to much in the grand scheme. But it also feels cynical to say that it means nothing. And I think that might be the place where A Quiet Passion intends to leave the viewer. Life is a brief and overwhelming cacophony of love, anger, joy, loss, and woe. If it all feels a little arbitrary, confusing and cruel sometimes, I guess that’s because it is. It’s lovely and rapturous too, for whatever that is worth. And if it seems hard to reconcile the poles of happiness and hardship, maybe it is because they are not meant to be reconciled. A Quiet Passion is about a great mind who fretted over the unanswerable questions of life, created beautiful art out of the ambiguity surrounding death, and probably left just as mytified as when she came in. For my part, I do not know what solace is really worth when weighed against the inscrutable enormity of it all. But I do hope each and every one of you finds as much of it as you could need, in whatever form you find it. For the time being.
I still write film reviews the way I used to write term papers as a pimply thirteen year-old. I put a line paper notepad on my desk or my table or Taco Bell’s table and I hang my head over it. I lean over it and scribble and furrow my brow, and I try to come up with the film’s main subjects. I outline like my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Marocchi, first taught me to do. These outlines can actually be a very handy barometer for how I feel about a film’s quality. With a poor or mediocre film, the outline topics tend to be pretty superficial, less subjects than general elements one expects to find within a film. Acting. Writing. In a pinch, I might do a paragraph on how bored or entertained I was. With great films though, I can find themes or motifs or ideas. I can delve into the various ways the work made me feel and find a paragraph for each emotion. I would never want to reduce Film to a point system, as if a film’s quality hung on how many bullet points I could come up with for it. Movies are not wrestlers or Lincoln-Douglas debaters. Still, it is a good sign when a film gives me too much rich substance, too many paragraphs, to fit into a single review. For example, it’s a very good thing that, instead of using my opening paragraph to come up with some relevant anecdote or thesis to tie the whole film together (this brief explanation notwithstanding), I am going to use my introduction to state that James Gray’s The Lost City of Z (pronounced “Zed” in the film) is some of the most luscious, grand, classically sumptuous adventure film-making I have seen in some time. The level of sheer craft on display in James Gray’s soulful and stirring biography of 1900s Amazonian explorer Percy Fawcett is so beautiful, painterly and rousing in the best old-fashioned way that it could be the focus of discussion in a review of some other very good film. Alas, there are just so many rich ideas and themes in The Lost City of Z that I have no choice but to squeeze in its lovely lensing, hypnotically lavish tone, subtly mesmerizing score, and the breathtaking immediacy with which it captures its moment in history right here at the start. The film’s surface pleasures alone could take up an entire review if this were a more modest piece of work. But The Lost City of Z is one of the year’s great works of art, and so I have to place them here like little footnotes. James Gray’s film is so sharp, thoughtful, and magnificently poignant that its status as the year’s most perfectly composed period piece is really just the beautiful, gold-trimmed leather binding on a great, thick work of literature. The Lost City of Z is a true story with the sweep and emotional scope of an old classic novel; the kind of classic that, when you are finished, you may just pick back up to flip through the pages, smelling the yellowing paper and running your fingers over the odd illustration inside.
The story begins in Ireland in 1905, where a British corporal in his mid-30s named Percy Fawcett (Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam, one of several 2017 heartthrobs giving performances that fervently demand we reconsider their potential) is stationed at the English barracks there. The soldiers are all preparing to take part in a British military tradition: a stag hunt. We see Percy’s vigor and ambition almost immediately, as he captures the day’s prize. With the stag comes a chance to meet higher ranking officers at that evening’s banquet. The chance, however, never materializes for Percy. In whispers, one man of high rank explains to another man of higher rank that Percy Fawcett comes from a disgraced family, and both take their leave before the enterprising man can approach them. We come to see much of what drives Percy Fawcett is a desperation to establish a legacy and to restore some luster to a family name that his late father tarnished through drunkenness and gambling. Percy Fawcett is not the only character important to this story. We also meet his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller in a splendid, subtly observant performance), a vivacious, confidently enlightened, and resolute woman, who does not hesitate to call out the sexist hypocrisies and injustices that are a regular part of life in Edwardian England. Percy and Nina, who Percy lovingly calls Cheeky, have a young son and they seem to hold a wistful affection for their modest, happy life, while also knowing that it is beneath someone of Percy’s military experience and accomplishment. Percy’s fate seems to be to forever labor under his father’s long, tarnished shadow. Then one day he receives the fateful order to report to London. He learns the Royal Geographical Society needs someone to mediate (and also help exploit) the border tensions in the rubber-rich tropical forests between Bolivia and Brazil, by helping to map the heretofore uncharted region. The Brazilians and Bolivians will have an allegedly neutral party to draw their border lines, Britain will be able to look into some lucrative resources, and humble Percy Fawcett will have an opportunity to lead a mission whose success could restore some piece of his family’s reputation. He will also have to leave behind his wife and young son, and will miss the birth of his second child. In the name of improving his family’s life, Percy will spend more than two years in the dense, perilous Amazon undergrowth. Along the way, Percy procures the services of Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, as fantastically subtle and understated here as he was fantastically livewire and unhinged in this year’s Good Time), a dryly soft-spoken ex-corporal who Percy first encounters drunk a full week into their Atlantic steamship voyage, but who quickly proves himself to be a level-headed and immensely resourceful companion. They travel to Fazenda Jacobina, a rubber outpost that represents the last and furthest reaches of Western civilization into the Amazon, including an outdoor opera house all but engulfed by tropical flora. There they pick up a small crew of British men and one indigenous guide who is brought to them in chains. Percy’s first journey to map parts of the Amazon is an expectedly harrowing, grueling ordeal, complete with spear attacks, piranhas, a mutiny attempt, panthers, heatstroke, and maddening deprivation. What is less expected is that Percy comes to find ancient pottery in the jungle, possible evidence of an advanced civilization, which makes him a sudden exploratory pioneer and the talk of London when he returns. What is also unexpected, at least to anyone who has never seen a Werner Herzog film, is that this punishing land of intense heat constant danger exacts a powerful pull on Percy. He comes to fall in love with it and dreams of immediately returning in the hopes of discovering an entire lost city in the Amazon. In no time at all, having scarcely met his infant son, he is rushing back to Bolivia with Costin and another trusted crew member. He also brings along a rich donor (Braveheart’s Angus McFadyen, in a brief, brilliant portrait of pompous incompetence), who aids the mission with his social clout and woefully jeopardizes it by being weak-willed and ill-equipped for jungle hardships. Percy finds even more evidence to support his theory of advanced Amazon cultures, though the lost city remains tantalizingly out of his grasp. He returns to England to rejoin his family and then goes off to fight in World War I, but Percy Fawcett’s thoughts never stray far from the jungle, a place where he has found his life’s work and where the pretentious mutterings of British society are lost under the babble of river water and the buzz of insects. Like Timothy Treadwell, famously captured in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, Percy Fawcett is a man who both finds and loses himself in a wild, dangerous place. And The Lost City of Z is a film that empathizes with his need to escape while remaining clear-eyed about the toll that obsession took on a family he left behind for so many years. James Gray’s film is by turns an impeccable turn of the century period piece, a rousing adventure story, and a gently hypnotic hymn to the siren song of the unexplored and unknown. It sees the call of discovery as something softly beautiful in its lure; less a fever dream than a hazy, warmly soothing trance.
I have already mentioned how gorgeous The Lost City of Z’s images of jungle exploration are, but there is something deeper than beautiful surfaces here. In a very classical, sweeping way, James Gray captures the rhythms of insatiable wanderlust. The editing choice that best demonstrates this is my favorite single shot in the film and leads to what is quite possibly my favorite cut in all of 2017 cinema. Percy Fawcett has just met Costin and is firmly chiding him for being intoxicated. Costin dutifully and apologetically hands over his flask of whiskey and Percy pours its last remnants into the sink. In a very tight closeup, we see a long stream of brown fluid running toward the drain. Then we cut from that stream inching forward to a steam train pushing its way into the Bolivian jungle. It’s a relatively simple, two-shot edit and I’d have to say it’s about as formally tricky as The Lost City of Z gets. But there is a tremendous power in that moment. We feel the thrill of venturing into new, uncharted places, perhaps even before Percy himself has fully felt it. The Lost City of Z is more than just a simple adventure film, and James Gray finds space to question the harms of Percy’s obsession and the wider Western world’s fixation on interloping into places it finds exotic. But Gray knows it is important that we feel the giddy intoxication of pure, uninhibited travel. He wants us to see the dazzling mirage of exploration that Percy sees and feel the breathless rush in his heart. I cannot remember when I last read one of the classic adventure books, but from the moment this film opened, with the enigmatic image of bowls full of fire flickering in the dark night above the Amazon, I recalled what it felt like to read Robinson Crusoe or Treasure Island. The implications and consequences of Percy’s Amazon adventures are complex, but it is crucial to Gray that we feel the enthusiastic, almost boyish spirit of discovery that Percy feels in his soul, even in moments where his life is in great danger. The Lost City of Z is an utterly empathetic film. It does not doubt that we may judge Percy Fawcett for his single-minded obsession with finding Z, but it does ask that we let ourselves get swept up in his daydream first. More than asking us, the film positively whisks us away to that place until we cannot help but share his awe-struck curiosity.
And if falling under the enchantment of an adventurer’s life is the key to understanding and feel for Percy Fawcett, even in his most pig-headedly trying moments, it is equally important that we get a sense of the itchy straitjacket of 1900s British society that he is wriggling out of. Part of what makes Charlie Hunnam such a wonder in this role is that he uses his volatile, rough-hewn charm to suggest a man chafing at a society that routinely dismisses him. I imagine Hunnam, a heretofore mostly unsung actor, can relate to having more potential than most people can immediately see. I confess to having been one of those people. Percy Fawcett is a man of tremendous drive and keen intelligence, but the harsh social pecking order of this time tells him that his fate was sealed decades ago when his father chose to lose the Fawcett name at the bottom of a bottle. Even the Royal Geographical Society’s decision to give Fawcett the Bolivia mission feels like an attempt to foist a dangerous, thankless job on a man the British military sees as a bit of an embarrassing afterthought. At best, Fawcett may come back with some small handful of clout. At best, he may one day die with the black mark finally scrubbed clean. He may dare to dream of breaking even. Both Percy and Cheeky immediately pop against the drab, restrictive landscape of Edwardian values. They are nuanced, sensitively played characters and we quickly grasp that both are blessed and cursed with an awareness of the ridiculous unfairness of the hierarchical system they are sentenced to spend their days in. “I know the medals are ridiculous, Cheeky,” Percy says about his hunger to finally have some brooch pinned on him after years of service. Then he adds, “But they may be our only chance.” Understanding and seeing the unjust whims of one’s society does not mean that one can alter them or be entirely untouched by them. Percy and Cheeky have intelligence, integrity, and a spark of good-natured humor about their circumstances; about this arbitrary thicket of social climbers and family legacies. But all the grace and wisdom in the world really only enables them to sing in their chains. These are multi-faceted, vibrant human beings who pop against the drab backdrop of their rigid society, and I cannot decide whether that makes their plight more or less tragic. The Fawcetts would write an extraordinary story together. Percy’s discoveries in the Amazon would upend the West’s condescending notions about tribal cultures. He would achieve more real acclaim and historical importance than someone in his social position could have dreamt possible. But for all he achieved, Percy could never entirely escape the desire to gain the approval of men who had long ago declared themselves above him. For all that he knew better, their patronizing stares followed him. And for all the boundless freedom he pursued and found in the South American wilds, there was always a sad undercurrent of desperation and inferiority pushing him along. He found as much liberty and joyful escape as any British man living in his day ever could. But, much as Lawrence of Arabia’s T.E. Lawrence learned, there is no such thing as infinite liberty and escape only lasts if we never have to go back where we came from. Like many a great Werner Herzog film, The Lost City of Z finds a potent mixture of elation and melancholy in one man’s attempt to define and find himself outside of society’s strict codes.
For as much pathos as James Gray finds in Percy Fawcett’s bittersweet odyssey to discover some great truth beyond the petty materialism and social strata of Edwardian England, the most sorrowful fact may be that Percy himself is still very much a product of his time and place. It is not just that Percy cannot entirely escape England’s classist mores, but that he cannot fully free his own mind from the ignorance around him. Percy is a thoughtful, rigorous, good-hearted man in ways that many of his snobbier peers are not, yet he reacts in apopleptic disbelief when Cheeky suggests that she might come along with him on his travels. He is a man able to advance theories that enlighten minds about indigenous cultures. He even has the humility to concede to his own arrogance when he learns that some tribes have advanced farming systems. But the hypocrisy of refusing to fully see that a woman could be an explorer escapes him. Even as Cheeky raises their family alone for years at a time and teaches herself celestial navigation and even unearths the key piece of research in Percy’s great anthropological theory, he cannot come to see the full strength of this brilliant, stalwart woman. In some sense, even when we are with Percy in the Amazon, The Lost City of Z is Cheeky’s story. If Percy Fawcett had to voyage a continent away into the perilous jungle to find dignity and some relief from the stifling class realities of 1900s England, he at least had that jungle. But the greatest marvel of fortitude and grace in the film is Cheeky, who had to spend years away from her husband and had to bear that separation while also toiling under the daily humiliation of being a woman in a time when women were thought capable of so very little. This vibrant, observant, dynamic woman surely knew that a more just society was on the way. Perhaps she could sense suffrage and employment and feminism just over the next crest in the hill, but she had to stay where she was. She had to see it in her imagination. In the film’s heart-stoppingly beautiful final shot, we are left to contemplate a woman who hoped to find her own adventures, her own space, but instead had to settle for exploring the uncharted depths of her own unappreciated mind.
The Lost City of Z is a film with a genuine affection for human curiosity and a frank, generous, and clear-eyed understanding of the constraints that compel us to wander and explore. It is a film about both the freedom of open spaces and the harsh authority of borders. Physical borders, societal borders, and mental borders. It is a film about questing for some sense of wondrous freedom within the cages of our realities, and the fact that it is about questing for liberty within our limitations makes it feel fitting that it finds such vivacity, beauty, and real emotion within something as well-worn as the adventure film or the British period piece. Like this year’s Mudbound, The Lost City of Z is a film less interested in reinventing the wheel of old-fashioned epic cinema than embracing its classic design features and smoothing them out to perfection. It is a dramatically enthralling tale of exploration and a sumptuously mounted, splendidly acted look at turn-of-the-century England, and what is most vital is that it shakes every last bit of wax from those old, reliable genres. It finds rich, psychologically complex people under the costumes and poignant, nuanced motivations beneath the derring-do. What James Gray has crafted here is masterful. A film about trying to buck the system that restores the lustrous good name of traditional cinema.
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Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk received instantaneous, almost unanimous raves from the moment it screened in early July of 2017. It went on to earn eight Academy Award nominations, eight BAFTA nominations, and an endless list of wins and nominations from both critics and industry guilds. It comes from the creator of critical and popular hits like Memento, The Dark Knight, and Inception, yet it had a host of critics lining up to anoint it as the new apex of his filmography. It vaulted to an astronomically high score of 94 on Metacritic and made more than $500 million in worldwide box office. If you judge a film’s success as being some combination of reviews and the number of sheer eyeballs that watch the thing, then Dunkirk is your unimpeachable 2017 champion. And for all that, I have to posit that it may be the most underrated film of the year. Somehow, most of the conversations I have had about it have carried a sense of being underwhelmed, which is an odd reaction to have to a dynamically directed, feverishly intense, critically adored Oscar player that half of the world paid IMAX money to see. The thing I have found about Dunkirk is that it is so very much its own beast that it vexes a wide spectrum of viewer expectations. The film provokes strong opinions about what it actually is, what it should be, and what it needs more of, and the strangest thing of all is that there is no decisive consensus as to what the film needs more or less of. My family was impressed by the spectacle of it but found it to be a chilly, clinical experience without a lot of human interest. They echoed the feelings that a number of friends have had regarding a paucity of memorable, distinct people to take us through the story. I understand this criticism, yet I find myself on the opposite end of the spectrum. I could have done with even less characters; even less of a conventional human angle. I am a lover of great characters and writing. My top ten of 2017 is overwhelmingly populated by character studies. But in this one case, I wanted even less of it. I found myself wishing Nolan had given me an even drier martini (and that will be the last time the word “dry” comes up when discussing this sopping wet movie), with even less of the olive juice of human interest. There is a moment early in the film when a weary, tense line of British soldiers stands on a dock waiting to board a boat. The rough surf roars up at them. As the waves crash at them, they all duck in unison and just as soon stand back up as a unit. This line of men looks like some kind of human wave, like an extension of the ocean itself. This was my moment of nirvana with Dunkirk and it was the special quality I wanted more of in the film. It was a moment of dynamic, wordless, utterly shot-based cinema, like I might get from a Kubrick or Tarkovsky film. And while I understand wanting more human voices in what is largely a tale of noble human fortitude, I was nonetheless brought back down to earth a bit whenever the film paused to let a character give some speech. And I am not saying that my take is the definitively correct one. What I am saying is that Christopher Nolan has made a film that seems to confound expectations about what makes a great war film. And in a year that was relatively short on the ground for boldly uncompromising works, Dunkirk’s ability to both conquer the box office and still be kind of polarizing is its own intrinsic medal of honor.
What is really exceptional about all this is that Dunkirk never really had to be this idiosyncratic. To be frank, when I heard that Christopher Nolan was making a film about the famous Dunkirk rescue in World War II, I did not anticipate any idiosyncrasy whatsoever. I have loved a number of Nolan’s films in the past and I anticipated a well-made war picture, but I was also sure that this would be his attempt to make something broadly appealing and inspiring. And the thing is Dunkirk is something of an inspiring movie. It just also happens to the year’s most brutally visceral cinema experience. Dunkirk is a terse, relentlessly intense telling of Operation Dynamo, the British mission to rescue over 330,000 Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, France where they faced almost certain capture by the Nazi armies. In history books, Dunkirk often comes up under the heading, “The Miracle at Dunkirk”, emphasizing heroism in the face of adversity and long odds. The Miracle of Dunkirk would see Britain rally to save hundreds of thousands of soldiers, with many British civilians coming to assist with the rescue in private boats. Operation Dynamo unexpectedly thwarted a crushing Nazi victory and very likely saved Great Britain from being coerced into a conditional surrender with Germany. As some Dunkirk detractors have pointed out, there was a lot of nuanced historical context to this situation, including the involvement of non-British forces in the conflict and the complex strategic considerations that led Germany to spend three days pummeling the surrounded troops but not making a decisive strike to defeat them. And of course there was the matter of Winston Churchill, only some 220 miles away in London, advocating for Parliament to send relief to those beaches, which was the substance of 2017’s Darkest Hour and is nowhere to be found in this film. To sum it up, Dunkirk features none of the following: major strategic discussions, speeches to any government body, visible Nazi soldiers, Winston Churchill, and, for the vast majority of its runtime, any place on God’s green earth outside of the shell-pocked beaches and choppy waters of Dunkirk. What Dunkirk does feature is terrified men, a positively demonic symphony of bullet whizzes and engine whines, endless alternating torrents of water and fire, relentless action, and a hypnotically teeth-gritting Hans Zimmer score that would be well over the top in any film where vicarious shellshock was not the raison d’etre. Dunkirk gets one of its few moments of relative calm out of the way in its first minute and it spends that minute acquainting us with our harrowing situation and letting us know that there will be precious little peace in the 100 minutes to come. A small group of soldiers walk through the deserted streets of Dunkirk as a deceptively gentle rain of white leaflets falls down upon their heads. The leaflets show a map of Dunkirk and stark block letters read, “YOU ARE SURROUNDED”. One soldier (Fionn Whitehead, very good as the closest thing the film has to a main protagonist) grabs a handful to use later as toilet paper. No sooner have the men stopped to check their surroundings then an ear-splitting hail of machine gun fire pierces the eerie stillness. The men, who we have not known for much more than thirty seconds, are all gunned down as they flee, with the exception of Whitehead’s character. The lone soldier makes it behind the tentative safety of a cluster of sandbags guarded by French soldiers. Even that safety feels unbearably shaky, however, as the monstrous din of the gunfire seems to follow him even as he runs further behind the French line. The cacophony chases him and us until we reach the dismal dead-end of that beach full of soldiers. The plot of Dunkirk focuses on the desperate struggle to escape from this place while under the constant, faceless threat of German bombs, bullets, and torpedoes. Dunkirk is a historical war piece that exists almost entirely as an enervating action survival film. What makes it unique, apart from Nolan’s decision to strip most of the prestige away in favor of unflagging terror, is its time structure. Nolan and his editor Lee Smith (unquestionably and almost necessarily the most valuable contributor to the film’s success) cut with brisk, hurtling energy between three places and time periods. The first is a week before the evacuation, as Whitehead’s character and a multitude of other soldiers (including British singer and heartthrob Harry Styles) wait at the docks, trying to put men on boats and vainly struggling to dodge the strafing of German planes. The second time period takes place at sea a day before the evacuation, as a British private craft manned by a kindly civilian (reliably well-played by British national treasure Mark Rylance), his son and his young employee sails to Dunkirk. The last period takes place in the air one hour before the evacuation as British pilots (one played by Tom Hardy) fly to provide the evacuation with air cover. Dunkirk is the story of three different groups of men constrained to a limited view of war and all the more terrified for not knowing the bigger picture. Dunkirk is not the first war film about just trying not to die and it is not the first to argue that war is a hard thing to fathom when you’re in the middle of it. But it may be the only film I can name to make the claustrophobic scramble of surviving war feel this chaotic, merciless, and physically draining. Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan’s most purely sensory work. It is a wildly successful attempt to capture how time must feel within the metallic maelstrom of battle.
An easy way to illustrate the overall effect of Dunkirk would be to say that it extends the first fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan across an entire film. That’s frankly a little reductive and it ignores the fact that Dunkirk communicates some pretty rich ideas, but one cannot fully compliment the multi-faceted achievement of this film without pointing out that it is some of the most perfect action cinema ever captured. It is an absolutely beautiful, majestically assaultive action film. If Dunkirk were nothing but the most propulsive, maniacally tense, ingeniously crafted action film of the year, I would still feel a strong obligation to write about it and recommend it. One cannot take pure, visceral, heart-pounding cinema like this for granted. As an act of sheer, harrowing spectacle alone, it is one of the year’s most beautiful and intelligent works of art. And I say intelligent because it is not just that Dunkirk looks impressive or that it moves with astonishing power or that the sheer scope of the thing is jaw-dropping. There is also a keen sense of how great action cinema does more than pry open your eyes and assault your ears. Nolan has always had a shrewd understanding of how our fear sensors operate. He relishes not just the explosive moments, but the foreboding lulls right before something catastrophic happens. Before he sinks a carrier ship and sends it to the bottom of the sea, he watches two soldiers push nervously through the crowd to be closer to the door and holds on them anxiously looking at it. We shiver at the possibility that this ship could flood with water long before we see it happen. Before a vast swath of oily ocean goes up in flames, we have a moment to process that a group of shipwrecked soldiers are floating in it. Then a faraway voice screams, “Oil! You’re in oil!” This is action cinema so brutal and unrelenting that it becomes poetic in its fury . Dunkirk values an almost musical sense of pacing. To use an old cliché, this is the quintessential case of a director holding his audience in the palm of his hand. We tremble at coming down from the latest dreadful adrenaline rush because we know the film is only easing our anxiety so we will be vulnerable for the next moment of panic. Putting an experience like Dunkirk into words is futile, but the fact is that no movie made me feel a more elated sense of terror. And that elation does not mean that you don’t feel genuine empathy and compassion for the men going through this ordeal. But Dunkirk is so skillful at hooking an IV drip of adrenaline to your veins that it is impossible not to feel perversely enlivened in a mortified way. Nolan understands that the great heart-pounders need to do more than just throw sound and fury at the audience. You must also be continually setting up new payoffs. You must not neglect the fine art of making your audience wait. In Dunkirk, Nolan demonstrates an impeccable knack for laying down timebombs in one scene that will go off two scenes later.
And if the marvelous craft and precise timing of Dunkirk were not impressive enough, let me also join the chorus praising Nolan for making fruitful new use out of some of his oldest tricks. Dunkirk is not the first Nolan film to play with the concept of time as a kind of prison (Memento) or to place a story within a multi-tiered temporal structure (Inception). But I do not know that he has ever used the tricky, prismatic nature of time to more rigorously suspenseful effect. It is the reason that even those scenes where the gunfire dies down have an unbearable, suffocating dread to them. On a purely surface level, this device imbues the film with an urgency that is immediate and unbelievably bracing. From the moment Hans Zimmer’s timebomb of a score started its first metronomic ticks and two of our soldiers went racing down the beach with a stretcher, a knot formed in my stomach and a strange, nervous half-grin spread across my face. It was terrifying and unbearable and also undeniably exciting. I don’t know that I felt a more primal rush all year than when the gears of Nolan’s unforgiving doomsday clock started to turn and the film made its first rotation through the three tiers of time. Even as a purely superficial thrill ride, Dunkirk has a grimly entertaining sense of purpose. Fortunately, Dunkirk is not simply a dazzling piece of narrative machinery. What Nolan set out to do, by his own admission, is to use the cruel, rigid bars of these time structures to tap into the idea of war as a fickle, arbitrary, and incomprehensible game of survival. The soldiers on that beach do not know that civilian boats are days away from rescuing them or that some small amount of air support will rally to their aid in the nick of time or that a strategic gambit by Hitler and his generals will keep the Nazis from massacring them right where they stand. They only know this terrible moment and this wretched, doomed expanse of sand. Dunkirk takes the World War II story with one of the most famous happy endings and spends most of the film showing how, until that happy deliverance arrived, this place was a violent, forsaken hellscape. Dunkirk shows how time and our limited perspectives play potently off one another and how especially excruciating that must be in the context of war. It is a straightforward but powerful idea, and the devastating marvel of it all is how Nolan uses skillful physical acting, astonishing practical effects, and a tremendously effective plot structure to make you feel a trapped soldier’s dilemma in your bones. It is a simple enough thing to say that one intends to use temporal cross-cutting to convey the heightened fear and uncertainty of battle and quite another thing to pull it off with this level of precision, immersion, and even sneaky emotion. Any number of directors could have conceived of the kind of roaring engine needed to power a movie like this, but only someone with an exceptional grasp of pure, muscular filmmaking could have built it. Only a director with both an impeccable grasp of whiz-bang storytelling and an auteur’s sense of why that story needed to be told in that way could have built something this visually and sonically mesmerizing and quietly rich in ideas. Just as he did with The Dark Knight, Nolan has created a rousing, indecently thrilling popular entertainment that is also brutal, bruising, and exhausting.
And this astonishing onslaught almost never lets up for the entire 100 minutes. We are placed among a mass of men running around the trap of this surrounded beach with no inkling that help is coming and little time to do anything but run, hide, and pray that their next frantic stab at survival doesn’t lead them to a watery grave. And every now and then we return to Mark Rylance on his boat or Tom Hardy in his cockpit, mostly to remember that help is actually coming for these poor souls, and also to remember that those coming to the rescue are in no small amount of danger themselves. For all its relentless menace, Dunkirk does care about these people and about the unlikely triumph of this moment in history, and so we get some small ration of character and dialogue to keep us sated and sane. But, while I cannot begrudge anyone for wanting more humanity in this flurry of death, who these people are is so completely not the point of this film. To hear where the soldiers come from or which of them wants to go to university or to learn that Whitehead’s character wants to open a fish-and-chips shop in Brighton when he gets home would be utterly immaterial. It would be downright counter-intuitive to the film’s desperate, headlong momentum and to the greater points Nolan is making about war and survival. Dunkirk is an elemental film. It is rushing water and blazing fire and air whipping around the wings of fighter planes. It is tons of blackened earth flying high into the sky and crashing down around us. And it is human beings who have no choice but to become elements themselves. There is no choice but to hug the earth and plunge into the cold waters and become one with whatever part of this landscape isn’t exploding. And when our characters are not silently running, crouching and swimming from death, they are quietly moving toward other men in the hopes of finding some safety in small clusters. The men in Dunkirk behave like molecules. We do not find out if any of them have best girls at home because it does not matter, least of all to them in this moment. Nolan’s vision of war is beyond humanity, which maybe makes it sound like there is some truth to the critique that Dunkirk is too cerebral and efficiently cold for its own good. But I would maintain that the sheer intensity of the thing is actually what makes it more human. It is a vision of how much war strips away from people. Nolan is a good enough director of actors that I never once thought of these men as bland cogs. One can read the bleak dehumanization of this ordeal on their grubby, blanched faces. The fear when the water rushes over their heads. In one of my favorite shots, a soldier narrowly avoids drowning and pops above the water just in time to hear an explosion go off above his head. He plunges immediately back under and throws his hands above his head with the teary frustration of a child. Where does one have to go to not die in war? What does one have to become? Can I just be a fish? Do men have to become waves? I look at this man’s frail, flailing terror and I find the humanity that some say the film lacks. But, if any viewer looks at these quiet, huddled men and cannot entirely make out a fully fleshed human being, that may say a lot on its own.
What makes Dunkirk the year’s most underrated film may be how it seems to exist in between so many polarities. I have heard some wave it away as being too traditional, just one more World War II drama in a cinema landscape full of them. I have heard others complain that this nerve-rattling action extravaganza was too atypical of what they seek in movies about this time and conflict. It did not give them enough of the heart-tugging prestige they expected from what is arguably the Great War’s most touching moment of human fortitude. Dunkirk is the year’s most idiosyncratic traditional film, and the year’s most inspirational art film. For much of the film men become part of an almost faceless tapestry, yet we also find time for weighty speeches about country, duty, and sacrifice. Zimmer’s score screeches and sneers and then gives way to lovely, swelling strings. Dunkirk is a phenomenally exciting blockbuster smash and also might be the most cerebral, austere war film since The Hurt Locker. It is a luscious, grand entertainment full of derring-do and it also watches in frozen horror as a ships full of screaming men sink to the ocean floor like metal tombs. It is pathos and blood-curdling terror, together and in proportions that we do not often see. There are few things more safely respectable than a World War II picture, yet somehow the one thing Dunkirk never becomes is safe. Even its final reading of Churchill’s famous speech feels like something strange and a little unhinged. It feels like both a sincere appreciation of valor and bravery and a haunted, knowing acknowledgment that all this rhetoric is probably stuff and nonsense. Dunkirk is a miraculous hybrid of lofty war drama, peerless action spectacle, and harrowing thriller. It oscillates between the three, perhaps because a tale like Dunkirk is just too messy to told in a single way. The lesson may be that seemingly straightforward stories like this are never as tidy as they are made out to be. Nolan is clearly proud to honor the people who were part of this rescue mission. He knows the value this miracle story holds for Great Britain and for people around the world. But he also knows that narratives come after the fact. It is natural for the living to tell stories of survival, but survival itself has little need of words.