Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Category: 2017 films

Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2017)


At just 47 years of age, Christopher Nolan has become an anomaly in Hollywood — a critically-acclaimed filmmaker who also is bankable at the box office. Moreover, he has done so with a series of films that, on the surface, bear little resemblance to one another: Memento (2000) is basically low-budget noir; the Dark Knight (2008) belongs to the superhero genre; Inception (2010) plumbs the human unconscious; Interstellar (2014, which I reviewed) is sci-fi for armchair physicists. There is, then, a protean quality to Nolan’s output, which makes him an enigmatic figure among contemporary directors. Unlike, say, Martin Scorsese, it is hard to say what a “Nolan film” is like. His works tend to experiment with Weltanschauungen as much as genre and style. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that Nolan followed Interstellar, a space opera set in the future, with Dunkirk, a war film set in the past.

Dunkirk is based on the Dunkirk evacuation (codenamed Operation Dynamo) of 1940. Tomes have been written on this event, its impact on World War II, and its role in shaping Britain’s identity, but Nolan condenses this abundant material into a taut, 106-minute film. The decision to prioritize cinematic intensity over historical contextualization has been met with controversy, and it is fair to say that Dunkirk teaches us next to nothing about the persons behind the event. After all, Tom Hardy’s character is known as “Farrier” (though he is loosely based on the New Zealand pilot Alan Deere), while Cillian Murphy plays a man simply listed as “Shivering Soldier.” What Nolan’s film does capture (or, at least, strives to capture) is the evacuation’s sense of desperation and urgency. Ever fond of playing with chronology, Nolan divides the film into three plots, each beginning at a different temporal point in relation to the operation’s completion — namely, a week (“The Mole”), a day (“The Sea”), and an hour (“The Air”). The first of these timelines centers on a group of soldiers, stranded on Dunkirk beach, who are trying to board a ship back to England. They are all but defenseless against the bombardment of the Luftwaffe, and they scurry, almost silently, from vessel to vessel in hopes of deliverance.


The Mole

The second timeline features a civilian, his teenage son, and his son’s friend, who depart on a fishing boat from Weymouth and head toward Dunkirk, hoping to aid in the evacuation. As they cross the English Channel, they pick up a soldier stranded at sea, who is suffering from shell shock — a fateful decision, which puts their mission in jeopardy. The third timeline centers on a pair of British pilots, who are trying to provide much-needed cover for the evacuation. This is the most sublime sequence in the film. By using genuine Spitfires and mounting cameras to the planes’ wings, Nolan comes as close as possible to recreating an aerial dogfight.


The Air

Of course, as a representation of a historical event, the audience already knows how Dunkirk is going to end. But the denouement comes as a relief nonetheless. When, at last, Nolan permits us to hear Winston Churchill’s famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” address, we have a sense of how it must have been received by the soldiers who survived the evacuation — weary but hardened, traumatized yet grateful.

In many respects, it would seem that this accomplishment alone is significant, and that Dunkirk‘s critical acclaim (including eight Oscar nominations) is merited. I, for one, would agree. Dunkirk is a transfixing experience and, as a technical achievement, bests Nolan’s other tour de force, The Dark Knight (2008). But Dunkirk has its detractors too. As mentioned, much of the criticism has centered on the film’s minimal interest in historical context and character development — a problem that at least one commentator views as inherent in Nolan’s “postmodern narrativity”: “By focusing on the visual—elevating image over word—he wants us to feel rather than think, to re-experience rather than remember.” In giving priority to imagery, Nolan gives priority to “simulation,” that is, to overlaying the real event (the Dunkirk evacuation) with a series of sublime images that falsely pretend to repeat them (Dunkirk). That is why there is no God in Dunkirk either. Nolan has set himself up as the quasi-divine author of the world of Dunkirk (if not Dunkirk): “What Nolan does suggest…is that a virtual form of transcendence is available within the world, simply as a heightened experience of the world.”

This is an intriguing argument, which harks back to one of the classic debates in film theory: is the cinematic medium principally oriented toward recording and disclosing reality (per Siegfried Kracauer), or is cinema an illusion all the way down, giving the appearance of continuous movement when, in truth, it is a series of manipulated photographs projected at a certain speed (per Jean-Louis Baudry)? On the latter view, Nolan’s Dunkirk is surely a master class in illusory technique, cajoling the viewer (for the price of a ticket no less!) into believing that he or she is “right there” in battle, even though nothing could be farther from the truth. On the former view, Nolan’s techniques are persuasive precisely because they indicate and indeed mediate reality, and thus Dunkirk is a means of understanding our world, disclosing, among other things, the elemental human experiences of beauty, fear, love, and so on.

In the end, I tend toward cinematic realism, and so I am not terribly worried about Dunkirk‘s thin historicity. There is a sense in which Nolan’s approach here resembles that of Terrence Malick, contemporary cinema’s paragon of “realism.” As is well known, Malick was a Heidegger scholar and translator before becoming a filmmaker, and, accordingly, Malick treats art as a site where the “unconcealment” [alètheia] and “concealment” of entities is manifested and the presence of “divinities” [die Göttlichen] intimated. Might one say something similar about Nolan’s Dunkirk? Certainly it is a film attuned to things in themselves, to the interplay of earth and sky and mortals.


As a World War II film, moreover, Dunkirk views these elements over against the “enframing” of modern technology: entities are controlled and set aside for use. Air, land, and sea, even the human being as such, are revealed as instruments of a technological purpose. In this sense, the anonymity of the characters discloses their instrumental status.

And yet, there are points in Dunkirk where an excess breaks through — the sublimity of clouds and sun, the perilous beauty of the ocean, the human being’s primordial urge to live, to be home, all captured brilliantly by Hans Zimmer’s pealing score. In these moments, Dunkirk becomes a conduit for anthropological and theological reflection, perhaps even sacral experience. Here film does not just tell us about these themes; it makes us feel them.


Mother! (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2017)


Today’s review comes courtesy of Ben Winter, who graduated from Villanova’s MA theology program in 2014 and is currently a PhD candidate in historical theology at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the thirteenth century, specifically on the thought of Saint Bonaventure. You can read more of his writing here (scholarly) and here (general audience). I appreciate Ben’s willingness to contribute to the site while I try to carve out more time to begin posting regularly again. Enjoy!



On a rare night out with a friend, I experienced the film Mother!, directed by Darren Aronofsky. One of the first things I noticed in the film was the vibrating resonance created by common household activities. Switching on the light produces a flickering hum. Doors shutting resound with creaks and thuds. A torrent of water emanating from the bathroom faucet in another room suggests a distant rock ‘n roll soundwave. This film is firmly grounded in the material realm, and it depicts that realm in a strange and unsettling way. Aronofsky takes great pains to remind his audience of the basic (yet malleable and impermanent) nature of all created things. The house in which our protagonist (Jennifer Lawrence) spends the entire film is constantly heaving with the pangs of growth and destruction (or “generation and corruption”).[1] As the prime matter for our story, the staircases, tables, sinks, cellars, boards, hallways, windows, and doorways of this film set the stage for the unsettling events that take place within. Yet like the events that transpire in this film, the set pieces are themselves volatile—often playing tricks on the mind and finding unexpected [ab]use in the hands of human agents. Aronofsky begins and ends the film with a sequence of images that depicts the house being incinerated and then rebuilt. This wordless deluge of vignettes—again, bookending the entire film—signals that the story is taking place on an “elemental” level.

Act One

The theme of earthiness also pervades the plot of Mother! As its title suggests, the film chronicles—in fits and starts—the descent of an unnamed pregnant woman into a place of utter terror and madness (!). Although we are not informed of Lawrence’s pregnancy until midway through the film, she experiences visions (first revealed in the film’s opening act) of a pulsating ball of flesh. These visions are accompanied by spells of dizziness and spatial/audial hallucinations. From the beginning, it is clear that Lawrence is isolated by these visions. She never receives help during them—the rest of the world fades away and she is left to fend for herself (usually by mixing a strange yellow powder into a cup of water and consuming this “medicine”). Her husband, who is simply referred to as “Him,” is never aware of what happens, and consistently dismisses or overlooks Lawrence’s feelings. Throughout the film’s first act, we observe this couple playing out the roles of the tortured artist (“Him,” played by Javier Bardem) and the neglected (but innocent and admiring) spouse. The film really leans into these archetypical roles. When an older man (Ed Harris) enters the story, we quickly learn that the artist (“Him”) is quite interested in the affection and company of others—provided that they are not his wife. The character played by Ed Harris is obsessed with the artist, and creates a victimization narrative to gain his confidence. When Harris’ wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives, she immediately begins gaslighting Lawrence—domineering the conversation and normalizing the increasingly bold behavior of these two complete strangers who have invaded her home. Perhaps hardest-hitting are her comments about Lawrence’s failure to produce a baby—with the implication that this is all she is good for.

Act Two

Lawrence’s loss of control over herself is soon mirrored by her loss of control over the house. Just as a pregnant woman begins to bond in a different way with the world—and must give up control in many respects—so Lawrence becomes more and more susceptible to her environment, and to the actions of others. When the mysterious couple’s sons show up unannounced, a fight breaks out—culminating in the cold-blooded murder of one of the sons. “The artist” leaves the scene, because his priority is to take the mortally-wounded son to the hospital. Like so many other vignettes in the film, this episode reveals how Bardem’s character effectively ignores the needs of his wife (leaving her alone at home) under the pretense of helping others. Again, because he is the prototype of a tortured artist, he constantly gives of himself—through creativity and language—to strangers. And yet he cannot give himself to the only person who is truly able to give back with parity—his wife, who will soon carry their child. At the end of this second act, we are left wondering whether Lawrence will assert her needs more forcefully (she doesn’t), and to what extent the artist is malicious in his neglect.

Act Three

The latter question is answered resoundingly in act three. Late in the evening, the artist returns from his hospital trip. He informs Lawrence that the family and friends of these strangers will be coming to her home for a celebration. Accordingly, relatives start pouring in. As chaos thickens, Lawrence struggles to assert even a modicum of control over the rowdy scene; instead she ends up expending time and energy on menial household tasks (filling drinks, cleaning up spills or messes, and being called upon dismissively by guests to serve as “hostess”). The gathering spirals out of control, and erupts in violence. After managing to convince her husband to end the party, Lawrence is then attacked forcefully on the staircase by him. He slams her against the wall when she suggests (acting on what was said by Pfeiffer’s character) that he cannot even sleep with her, despite his seemingly endless ability to shower intimacy upon others. At first, it appears that he is going to rape her—and in fact, I would argue that he does. But she accepts his violent sexual advances like the receptive and malleable material of the house itself, given over to revelers by the artist.[2] And like the house, the woman is doomed to a violent end.

Act Four

In the fourth and final act, the film descends into a surrealist nightmare. Images of blood continue to haunt the now quite-pregnant Lawrence, and her visions of the ball of flesh are intensifying. While it appears that things are proceeding normally—the house is quiet, the baby’s room is nearly prepared—there is abject terror lurking beneath the surface. After the husband finishes his writing “project,” he shares it with his wife—who is elated and touched by the work. But when she finishes reading the text, it becomes clear that the artist has already jettisoned his creation out into the world—only giving it to his wife to read as an afterthought. Soon, an unending flow of people mob the house. At first, the crowd consists of paparazzi, journalists, and adoring fans. Lawrence struggles to keep them outside the home, but once a few slip in (ironically, a mother taking care of a child who has wet himself) the floodgates are broken. The following string of words is perhaps adequate to describe the next thirty minutes of this film: unimaginably intense and disturbing.

Time and space fluctuate rapidly as the house loses whatever structural integrity it may have had. Hordes of pilgrims seek the blessing of the artist, who happily focuses his attention and efforts on making them comfortable (“The poet says everything belongs to us!”). A very pregnant Lawrence is physically unable to reach her husband, due to the size of the crowd. As her home is torn apart by a relentless mob, Lawrence is battered (literally) from room to room as police in riot gear descend. No one is speaking to Lawrence, and the events are completely out of her control. Throughout these chaotic scenes, she experiences the painful throes of childbirth. When a police officer finally notices her (she is wearing a white gown, while all other characters are grimy and wearing shades of black), he is immediately shot in the head.

As the film reaches its climax, Lawrence’s husband attends to her labor, and delivers the baby in his home office (which had been boarded up earlier, and thus escaped being overrun by the throng). Aronofsky dials down the madness, giving the audience one last look at the family peace that could have been. Lawrence cuddles her cooing child, but refuses to allow the artist to touch her baby boy. He keeps the door barricaded and the hordes outside have gone suddenly quiet. The vast mob still lurks beyond the door, however, because the artist receives “gifts” from them: food and other items, ostensibly for the baby. When Lawrence falls asleep with the baby in her arms, she wakes to find that her husband has taken the child away. As she pries open the door, our ears are once again assaulted by auditory chaos—a pulsating collective of pilgrims raise the newborn on high and pass him around the home (while he cries and urinates—again, the film is radically focused on material things). This excruciating scene comes to an abrupt end when the boy snaps his neck on a steel support beam.

What follows is a somewhat disjointed and ineffective smattering of events. First, Lawrence slaughters a pack of worshippers. In a satanic parody of the Eucharist, these fiends dismember and consume the child—thus revealing the import of Lawrence’s “ball of flesh” visions. A few minutes later, the home explodes into the fiery abyss of a mushroom cloud. Here one can perhaps find support for an allegorical read of the film—as a depiction of humanity’s descent from the original family to the world-weary and world-destroying denizens of the present day. In the final scene, Lawrence (now a burning corpse) assents to the artist when he asks for the gift of her heart. Perhaps she is simply asking to be put out of her misery, but on a deeper level, this action sums up the film’s theme of male “taking.” As he reaches inside her body and removes its pulsating source, Lawrence shrivels into nothingness. This event triggers the magical rebuilding of the house, and (in what could be described as one of the film’s flaws) the cycle begins anew with a different woman.

Epilogue and Implications

Despite the somewhat unsatisfying conclusion (the film would have been more effective had it ended with the explosion of the home), it is evident that Aronofsky has created a masterpiece. This film is open to many interpretations, but its primary theme seems to concern the material foundation of life—a foundation that is at once shifting, volatile, and magically strange. The film (intentionally?) follows Aristotelian causality when it comes to Lawrence’s pregnancy. The artist is the formal cause; his distorted psyche creates the conditions in which the child becomes a distorted blob of flesh to be consumed by others. The mother is the material cause; she shelters and nurtures the child but exerts no control over its fate or telos. When it comes to the child’s death, the crowd is the material cause and the house is the formal cause. The artist is the efficient cause, since he willingly hands over his baby to the dangerous mass of people. The final cause of the boy’s death is also the artist: he accepts it as an acceptable “end,” and willingly participates in the ritualized appropriation of the murder. Perhaps Aronofsky is simply retelling the Eden story—with Eve as innocent victim of a capricious male psyche. In this interpretation, her child is the distorted son of the “god” that the artist has created of himself. A son must be sacrificed to appease the hunger and vulnerability of the god’s followers (scapegoating).

Yet Aronofsky’s societal critique is not limited to religion, or philosophy. The fundamental imbalance of motherhood and male-female relationships is laid bare by the brutal and manipulative artist—again, it is his agency that transforms the quiet and peaceful home into a den of thieves and murderers. The artist’s magnetism is the distorted inverse of the love that should develop between a woman, her world, and her child. There is a scene, between acts three and four, that effectively summarizes the film’s message. After the sexual conquering of Lawrence, we see the camera pan upwards from the two human beings in bed. The earth around their home begins to bloom, creating a beautiful and verdant garden that expands with vital energy. The home is ordered; the world is ordered. After this brief respite, the remainder of the film depicts the departure from this garden—culminating in the murder of a child, the ritualistic eating of the child’s flesh, and the father of the child stating, “We have to forgive them.” Because Lawrence rejects this narrative, she effectively becomes the sacrificial lamb—immolated upon the pyre of male domination. By placing Lawrence in such a position, Aronofsky powerfully urges his audience to feel both sympathy and horror. It says something very wrong about the world today if it takes a film like this (and it does) to remind us of the fragility of life, and of the dependence of all upon The Mother.

My Rating: 9/10

Recommended viewing, provided you have the stomach for psychological horror.

[1] I am using Lawrence’s real name for “the mother”—while using “Bardem’s character” (etc.) to describe the other actors—because Lawrence is our only protagonist.

[2] This point is emphasized throughout the film: Lawrence maintains—and possibly even built—the house; her husband writes.