The use of music and sound mixing play a role in most films, but there are certain films that take it to the next level and use it as one of the most important factors to the audiences’ viewing experience. If done right, the audience will walk away with an experience that cannot be mirrored by any other aspect of film-making. On the flip side, if you miss the mark, the experience becomes cheapened and awkward.
Christopher Nolan is known for minimal, muffled dialogue that infuriates viewers who just want to know what the characters are saying, but he does this so that the dialogue isn’t the main contributing factor to the plot. Instead, he uses aggressively loud and intimidating sounds coupled with jump cuts to draw the audience in to the story. In Dunkirk, the ear-shattering sound of bullets whirling past fighter jets and the erupting rumbles of bombers coupled with sporadic cuts create a sense of urgency and terror that forces the audience to feel as if they too are in danger. There’s a reason why the volume in this movie is so high even when your TV is on a normal setting. Nolan knows you’ve heard these sounds before and therefore he knew he needed that extra oomph to make the viewers actually feel them. How many times did the movie make you jump? How many moments did you feel the rumble of a plane, even though your seat remained still? The sounds within this film were too real to question and too emotionally jarring to dismiss.
While the sounds in Dunkirk frighten the audience, the timing of the jump cuts, which may seem dizzying, are what solidify the intensity of the movie. There is an especially jarring scene when the soldiers think they are safe below deck. Suddenly, all sound muffles and there’s a jump cut to a flash flood that burst through the ship’s walls. This cut occurs at the exact moment a giant crack of water is heard. Even though this isn’t an explosion or enemy fire, I’m pretty sure everyone in the theater jumped at the sound of it. Director Christopher Nolan knows how to elicit sound and cinematography in a way that makes dialogue take a backseat, and Dunkirk is the perfect example of this.
The main critique some people make of his technique is that he needs to be careful of overuse. Some have said that the constant piercing sounds and rapid camera work become too overwhelming. Those moments of dialogue that Nolan downplays so much are supposed to allow the audience a minute to come up for air, so without them, one’s senses are heightened for much longer than normal, thus risking the diminishment of the entertainment factor. Whether you enjoy his approach or not, there’s not arguing that he uses sound extremely effectively.