Christopher Nolan's Emotional Objects and the 'Dunkirk' Exception

All of Christopher Nolan's films use props to appeal to your emotions apart from Dunkirk.

Nolan Objects Modified

All of Christopher Nolan’s films use props to appeal to your emotions apart from Dunkirk. The reason for this has a lot less to do with a change of heart than it does regard for a psychological theory posited in 1943.

Though Dunkirk has been, in a certain sense, marketed as Christopher Nolan venturing forth into new territory, the distance between the subject matter of Dunkirk and Nolan’s earlier projects is generally overshadowed by the consistency of his approach. Dunkirk features most of Nolan’s usual suspects, onscreen and off (Michael Caine was the voice advising Tom Hardy over the radio early in the film, just in case you were worried), as well as many of his Favorite Things, including a tri-part, nonlinear narrative that allows for parallel editing, major spectacle with minimal CGI, and Nolan family cameos.

However, there is a particularly interesting way in which Dunkirk is truly new territory for Nolan in terms of approach as opposed to subject matter, and that is its handling of props. That’s right—just in case you missed the title of this article somehow, I am going to be talking to you today about stuff. Literally. And I have been intending to talk to you about how Christopher Nolan’s movies use stuff since before I had a chance to see Dunkirk because that was when I pitched this article. As a filmmaker, Christopher Nolan has a certain consistency that makes him even more appealing to his fans and more off-putting to those who dislike his work—the former feel safe trusting him with their hopes and the latter consider his case especially hopeless; a consistency that, as someone who has studied, analyzed, watched and re-watched all of Nolan’s filmography a genuinely embarrassing number of times, left me feeling unusually secure about pitching something involving a technically unknown variable.

After all, the idea for writing about Nolan’s emotionally charged usage of props came from encountering a few WWI “amulets” in a museum—personal trinkets meant to bring luck, ward off danger and disease, and perhaps serve as tiny tethers to home whilst being stuck in the middle of hell—and being reminded of the totems from Inception. The tiny black sequin-eyed cat wearing an even tinier pink bow that was carried around in a soldier’s pocket a century ago screamed, sentimental value! I have sentimental value and a super fascinating backstory that you will never know!, even louder than Ariadne’s brass bishop or Arthur’s red loaded die (the sentimental value and super fascinating backstory of Cobb’s spinning top, after all, is more or less the entire film Inception.)

Considering a World War artifact served as the catalyst and the only unknown variable in Nolan’s filmography was also his first foray into making a World War film (even if it was the other one), my attitude going into Dunkirk was that I was just about to be handed the crowning jewel of my argument. For those of you who have seen Dunkirk, you can probably guess where this is going—instead of a crowning jewel, I was handed an existential crisis. Where were the totems? The double-headed coin of tragic villainy? The red rubber ball of co-dependent brotherhood? Unlike in Interstellar, when watches appear in Dunkirk, it is exclusively to tell time. No humankind-saving data transmitted via Morse code; no father-daughter love transcending time and space. Just lots of boats of various sizes going from floating salvation to sinking deathtraps.

Nolan is a master of prop usage—just look at how often his films are featured in the elegant love letter to props that is the video essay Why Props Matter—and Dunkirk is no exception. Just think of Gibson’s gambit or the wheels of Tom Hardy’s plane. But when Nolan goes for emotional gut-punches in Dunkirk, the prop is not his weapon of choice—and the thing is, that’s kind of his signature move. From Leonard Shelby ceremonially burning his dead wife’s belongings in an attempt to find some closure in Memento to Cooper desperately trying to communicate with Murph via bookcase in Interstellar, when Nolan tries to tug at viewers’ heartstrings, props are usually at the heart of his M.O.

At first glance, Dunkirk seems like an especially odd film to deviate from this pattern. War-set films tend to love their little mementos and personal artifacts—letters from the family, a picture of a sweetheart kept in a pocket, a family heirloom watch. But on second thought, it actually isn’t odd at all. In fact, it makes perfect sense. Dunkirk‘s lack of emotionally-charged props is not an indication of Nolan shifting his attitude towards personal belongings or how they can be used in cinematic storytelling. Instead of a paradigm shift, it’s the exception that proves the rule once you consider an important psychological concept: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Now, for those of you not familiar, or if you simply require a refresher, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is basically a roadmap to “self-actualization”—reaching your full potential and achieving maximum personal satisfaction—proposed by psychologist Abraham Maslow in, ironically enough, 1943. Usually presented visually as a pyramid with five “steps”—physiological needs at the bottom, then safety needs, belongingness and love needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization at the very top—the theory states that only when all of the lower needs are fulfilled can an individual even attempt to address the higher ones. In other words, if you’re starving, you’re not going to look for (or find) fulfilling interpersonal relationships even if you’re lonelier than the 52-hertz whale. Addressing each “step” requires the fulfillment of all lower steps as a prerequisite.

When Nolan uses props to give viewers a swift kick right in the feelings, he’s operating at the level of belongingness/love and esteem needs (sometimes collectively referred to as psychological needs). In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent switches from panic mode to full breakdown after waking up in the hospital post-Joker once he flips over his “lucky” coin and discovers a ruined face—burnt to a crisp, just like half of his own face and all of his dead fiancee. In The Prestige, Alfred Borden, sentenced to death after being framed for murder, punctuates his final farewell to his twin brother by tossing over his signature “magic” rubber ball as a visual counterpoint to his parting words:

“Don’t cry. Not for me. Go live your life in full. For both of us.”

His twin picks up the ball, echoing the Transported Man trick that they sacrificed so much of their lives for, as well as the fact that he is now going to be the prestige of their final trick while Alfred has been sentenced to the fate of “man in the box” for the rest of eternity and no, these aren’t tears, of course I’m not crying, my face always looks like this, how dare you.

The characters of Dunkirk are not in a place where they can properly address psychological needs or concerns. From the very first moments of the film, they are fighting for survival, dealing with a crisis of unmet basic (a.k.a. physiological and safety) needs. The only partial exception to this is the Moonstone crew—Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), Peter Dawson (Tom Glynn-Carney), and George (Barry Keoghan)—the only civilians and the only characters to receive some degree of backstory; George details his desire to do something important enough to merit mention in the local paper while Mr. Dawson tells Collins (Jack Lowden) about the death of his eldest son, a pilot in the Royal Air Force, early in the war in order to give some context for his and Peter’s desire to assist with the evacuation. Their boat is also filled with personal touches—photographs, mementos, other stuff that clearly means stuff  (for lack of more elegant phrasing). Even though no specific items amongst these personal belongings are singled out or featured in any narratively significant way, their very existence provides a stark contrast to the blank uniformity of the military vehicles featured over the course of the film. Especially at the very beginning and the end—before the Moonstone crew venture into danger and after they return—these characters are allowed a level of depth, of humanity, that the soldiers featured in the film are not. However, even the civilians are much nearer to crisis in a more fundamental, basic needs sort of way than characters from Christopher Nolan’s other films—see: Dawson’s whole “there’s no hiding from this son” lecture to Cillian Murphy’s traumatized Shivering Soldier, who is so reduced to a basic, nearly sub-human state, that he never even gets named.

Long story short, Nolan doesn’t use props in Dunkirk the same way he has in past films because it would not make any sense for him to do so. He has a talent for imbuing props with interpersonal significance and then using them to wring out your emotions like a wet sponge, but the characters of Dunkirk are too busy dealing with crises involving basic needs to work their way up Maslow’s hierarchy to a point where emotionally significant objects make any sense. For the characters of Dunkirk, it doesn’t matter if the pinwheel is a childhood relic that symbolizes deeply internalized feelings of inadequacy, if it cannot help them get the hell away from Dunkirk beach and back to merry old England or present a more immediate threat to their continued existence than the German army, it is not worth so much as a passing thought. And when characters don’t care about something, getting the audience to care about this thing would be a steep uphill battle. But when the narrative deals with characters who have their basic needs met, that’s an entirely different story.

Just think back to Nolan’s micro-budget debut feature, Following. When the thief Cobb—the first of two very important thieves named Cobb in Nolan’s filmography, which suggests a particular attachment to both the name and the characters on which it is bestowed—gives his “Reasons I Steal” speech, it goes like this:

That’s what it’s all about—interrupting someone’s life, making them see all the things they took for granted. Like when they go back and buy all this stuff from the shelves with the insurance money, they’ll have to think for the first time in a long time why they wanted all this stuff, what it’s for. You take it away, and show them what they had.

In other words, he wants to mess with people’s minds and feelings via household objects. You know what profession is generally interested in messing with people’s minds and feelings? Filmmakers. As you might perhaps be aware, Christopher Nolan oh so conveniently happens to be one—and he’s very good at messing with peoples minds and feelings via household objects when his characters are in a place such that they actually care about household objects (as opposed to, you know, just ditching them on a dock for any Tom, Dick, or Harry to steal).

If you’re convinced, feel free to skip the following two paragraphs, but if not, let’s move on to Cobb No. 2. Maybe you’ve heard the fan theory that Inception is an analogy for filmmaking, with the Dream Team being various production heads of department (and Eames standing in for actors) and Robert Fischer representing, in the words of PBS, Viewers Like You. In interviews, Nolan has expressed mild interest in the theory but has not canonized it in any way. However, for this article, I am going to rock this fan theory like it’s custom-made Prada because this analogy allows me to point out a sub-analogy that is basically this article in a nutshell.

From the perspective of the Dream Team, the most important scene in Inception isn’t the folding Paris scene or the rotating hallway fight scene or even the very last “Did It Wobble?” scene. Instead, it’s the scene in the third dream layer where the resuscitated Robert Fischer is well and truly incepted after he makes it to his dream dad’s deathbed, hears the extended edition of his final words (“disappointed… that you tried”), opens the bedside safe to find the secret will and the childhood pinwheel of internalized inferiority—the ultimate proof that his father really did always love him. Cue: tears, explosions, epic finale. In other words, the most important scene in Inception boils down to a cathartic emotional breakthrough for an audience stand-in character in which a prop delivers the killing blow following an intricate build-up carefully orchestrated by a director stand-in character (Cobb).

With the exception of Dunkirk, every feature that Nolan has directed on which he is also credited as a writer has used props in a similar manner. However, the Dunkirk exception does not suggest a change of heart regarding props, but an understanding of and respect for how the human psyche works. Perhaps more excitingly, though, it demonstrates an interest on Nolan’s part in challenging himself to emotionally connect with audiences in new and different ways—and going off the audience and critical response Dunkirk has received, he’s doing a bang-up job thus far.

Human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes I try to be funny on Twitter.