Not many films have gained my attention enough to see twice in the cinema; Dunkirk has earned this title and I would happily make it the first film I have seen three times in the cinema if I could. The first time I saw Dunkirk, I left the theatre in a numb daze. It took me a good couple of hours to fully come back to reality as my mind just wouldn’t stop processing what I had seen. The experience I had with Dunkirk is what I believe it would have been like to see something like 2001: A Space Odyssey (or a film of equivalence) for the first time in the cinema. That’s exactly how I see Dunkirk; an experience. It was one of those films that have burned itself onto my memory as something I won’t be forgetting in a long time. It’s taken me over two weeks to pinpoint the cause of this admiration, but seeing the film yesterday finalised my suspicions. Dunkirk was so incredible because of its unforgettable use of sound.
Just listening to the soundtrack is enough to make you tense up. Throughout the entire movie, the dull ticking of a clock is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. It serves as a constant reminder of how intense a moment in history is like this. We know the story of Dunkirk but we don’t know the stories of these characters and the ticking acts almost as a countdown. However it’s not even the ticking that enthralled me. It’s the use of Hans Zimmer’s unmistakable score. Hauntingly beautiful and intense, not one moment of the film fell short. I’ve always loved Hans Zimmer and his works always have an element of humanity to them. The Dunkirk score in parts has this pulsating composition of strings that whilst it sounds a lot like waves, also feels a lot like breathing. The score in Dunkirk made me hold my breath from how tense it made me feel, it gave me goose bumps on many occasion. From the first moment of music in Dunkirk (named The Mole I believe) the audience is treated to this utter intensity. It establishes the tone straight away and you know that the next two hours are going to be spent gripping your seat and coming close to death from holding your breath several times. I don’t even believe I can explain how this soundtrack makes me feel it’s that good. The non-diegetic sound of music often crescendos at moments of severity and is often combined with the diegetic sounds of bomber planes and chaos. Thus the audience expects destruction every time the music peaks in power and almost always the audience is given this destruction. What makes this particularly effective is the use of the musical illusion, the Shepard Tone. Nolan (Dunkirk’s director) uses the Shepard Tone regularly within his other movies, and this musical illusion creates incredible intensity. Whilst I don’t know much about how the Shepard Tone works, what I do know is that using the Shepard Scale creates the idea of a pitch that is continuously rising or falling. We await a peak in pitch as we are used to it with normal scales and yet we never receive it so are left bordering a conclusion and never quite receiving the ending we need to satisfy us. This is particularly effective within Dunkirk as it gives the illusion of a never ending tense atmosphere which is exactly how the situation at Dunkirk was. Whilst it serves as a method to keep the audience on the edge of their seat, Nolan’s use also allows the audience to further immerse themselves within the film which is particularly effective mirrored with Nolan’s camerawork. We feel the consistent pressure the characters feel because the music never quite reaches a peak. This is what truly makes Dunkirk an incredible movie. I really do believe that without this soundtrack this movie would have been just another mediocre war movie with not much going for it. But Nolan expertly crafts a masterpiece through his profound and vivid use of sound and because of this Dunkirk has secured itself as a film I will remember for many years to come.
Until next time,
If you’re further interested in reading about the Shepherd Scale, here is an article I used whilst trying to research this topic a little deeper. http://awesci.com/shepard-tone-an-incredible-auditory-illusion/
I know this isn’t as far as I can go within this topic but I really needed to just talk about this film before it destroyed me and hence why this post may not be as in depth as I would like it to be.