German soldiers are conspicuously absent in Dunkirk. There’s a character in one of the three entwining, parable-like narratives who might or might not be German (playing a double-entendre with the title of the beach segments: “The Mole”), but full-uniform Nazis barely exist in physical form. Instead, Christopher Nolan treats their presence as an abstract: the roar of gunfire ripping through hulls and bodies; leaflets falling on the titular French city; the horrific, deafening whine of approaching Luftwaffe, bombing and gunning down shivering, panic-stricken Tommies. They aren’t an army, but an all-consuming specter, a chilling reminder from the past threatening to push people into the sea. Tellingly, one character intones to another, shell-shocked one, “There won’t be a home if we allow a slaughter across the channel.”
To that end, Nolan not only centers the retreating British, but hones in on their psychological state. The three stories–a private waiting rescue on the beach, a mariner who volunteers with his son and a hired hand to aid the evacuation, and one of the Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy) sent to protect the ships and soldiers–are told in concurrent non-linearity. Action is not relayed spatially or tactically, but emotionally. Montage is used often to portray characters experiencing the same traumas of war (drowning in a sunken ship is a recurring one) simultaneously at different points in time. While Nolan and editor Lee Smith treat this as an effective tension-builder, particularly when paired with the booming sound design and Hans Zimmer’s Shepard tone score, the way characters and situations align also taps into the collective mindset of people fleeing violence and nationalism in search of a home.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller distills his influential film series down to a single, film-length chase. Captured by a warlord, Max (now played by Tom Hardy) finds himself embroiled in a breakout orchestrated by metal-handed warrior Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and enslaved “wives” who are tired of being considered things. This is the sum of the plot, but it is not the story. For the fourth outing, Miller approaches Max as an ageless specter of the wasteland, living a purgatory existence haunted by the people he failed to protect throughout his years as The Road Warrior (particularly a child who calls him by name). Hardy is hunched and reticent, nervously darting his eyes, his Max utterly broken. Survival has become his only goal, momentum the only tool to achieve it.
In Furiosa, Max first sees a convenient alliance. She’s stable, pragmatic, laser-focused on her goal, and drives an armored big rig. By necessity, he makes himself useful to her. As they fend off the pursuing warlord and minor, offshoot tribes in a future-shock version of Stagecoach, sympathy emerges. Rather than one trying to dominate the other, the pair set tasks for themselves and their charges, taking turns shooting, driving, repairing. The spaghetti western loner redeems himself by integrating into a group.
Miller approaches these character arcs through action. He cycles between incidents in every scene, often as many as a dozen people scrambling in, on, or around a rusting, jagged, mobile fortress. Yet we never lose sight of who is doing what where or why, because camera movements are graceful, editing is sparse. We’re always following these bodies, even when they fall, crumple on the ground, and get trampled by tires.
Excitement doesn’t come from how fast stimuli is thrown at the audience, but from how these moving parts intersect and improvise. A boy sent below to repair an engine kicks Max to safety when a fight leaves him dangling on the side of the rig. A chain which bound two people becomes the key to winching the rig out of mud. A sharpshooter sneaks up beside pursuers on a motorcycle and headshots them. There’s a surprising detail or movement or story in every frame. Action movies don’t get much finer.