It may not leave Harry Styles agonizing over a spinning top or Tom Hardy sending love from the fifth dimension, but Dunkirk's ending is still a mammoth of thematic and narrative complexities that will have audiences debating well until Christopher Nolan's next movie arrives.
The film is nothing if not a major departure for Nolan. The director has been making movies with sci-fi infections since 2005, but for his tenth feature he's finally stepped into fresh waters and lent his meticulous eye to something more grounded; the evacuation of British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk by civilian ships in the early days of World War II (you can check out a rundown of the real events here). It's the most Nolan war movie you could imagine, told in a unique way that ramps up the intensity and - especially when viewed as the director intended in IMAX - puts you right there on that fraught beach.
Yet for all it sees the director expand his vision, it's still dealing with the same themes that have been the beating heart of every single one of his movies since Following. Everything, from the distressing historical concept to the multi-stranded, non-linear timeline aren't just directorial flourish but clear choices made to best explore and advance what interests him.
The movie's ending isn't as ambiguous as Inception's or confusing as Interstellar's, but it still leaves audiences with a lot of questions about character's fates, timeline convergence, the future of the war and what it all really means. Let's break it all down.
The Timelines Explained (This Page)
The Timeline Explained
Dunkirk's timeline is so intricately woven that it would take a whole other article to fully explore, but to explain the ending we do need to have a strong grounding of everything that's happened thus far, so here's a quick recap.
The film is told in three timelines that unfold concurrently but are in fact of varying in-movie lengths and dilated to fit; "The Mole" (the land portion, named after the French stowaway amongst the British soldiers) takes place over the course of a week, "The Sea" covers a day and "The Air" is a mere hour of the whole ordeal. Ostensibly done so each part of the story gets equal focus (Tom Hardy's dogfighting would be a minor blip if this was told conventionally), these all overlap but due to the narrative structure they often do so out of order. For example, the civilian reserve naval fleet is called in at the start of "The Sea", but isn't even mentioned as a possibility until halfway through "The Mole".
Everything eventually converges as the escaping soldier's ship sinks, Mr. Dawson's (Mark Rylance) boat comes across a bombed minesweeper, and Farrier (Tom Hardy) takes on the bomber. It's the film's narrative culmination and is in many ways a slow purpose reveal of why Nolan has told the story in this way; Dunkirk really is a movie about the telling (evidenced in how he's called it a suspense thriller), highlighting how Operation Dynamo's success was the result of many seemingly disparate people all unknowingly working together. After this still-complex interchange, the threads each diverge to give each set of characters their own ending.
What The Timeline Really Means
It's not just to craft a cinematic epic that Nolan's done this, though. By telling Dunkirk in such a distinct way he is using technical form as a way to explore the movie's themes: sacrifice for duty, the perception of time and the nature of storytelling. These ideas run through his entire filmography - see The Prestige's magician rivalry devolving into a debate on art's purpose and Interstellar's decade-traversing love story - but this time more than any before the movie is built from the ground up to accommodate them.
Time is the most obvious element here given the structure, but it's more than Nolan being quote-unquote "smart". There's a strong idea of "lost time", best shown in the youth of the characters in greatest peril and amplified by the constant ticking on the soundtrack as we jump between narratives. However, what the multiple timelines really do is play with perception. They're told exclusively from a set of POV characters with no jumping in the middle - we don't have an obvious cut to Harry Styles when Tom Hardy's flying over the boat - that aims to convey the sprawling nature of the Dunkirk from singular perspectives. It's about the individual in a shared experience.
And this brings us to the storytelling. Many have talked about Dunkirk as a purely visceral experience, and while it definitely is, everything is really in service of an exploration of how and why we tell stories. The movie exists in a time bubble devoid of the context of the past or future of World War II, which makes us consider only what's on show. And to each of the main characters in the story - Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Mr. Dawson and Farrier - this event in Dunkirk is equally important and impactful on their lives, regardless of actual time spent in the fray. Their stories are put alongside each other to highlight that; to Farrier, the dogfight and repeated sacrifice is no less daring than Tommy's repeated attempts to get off the beach. This aspect is running through the film, but doesn't reveal its full purpose until the very end, where each of the three plots is wrapped up with a distinct, resolute point.