Hans Zimmer has been responsible for some of the most effective film scores of the past 25 years, yet he only holds in his possession a single Oscar – for The Lion King. Why is that, I wonder? Why were the scores for Gladiator, The Thin Red Line, The Dark Knight Trilogy, The Last Samurai, Inception, Interstellar, Black Hawk Down and Thelma and Louise unrewarded, despite a few of them getting nominated?
The answer is simple: While the music branch of the Academy does the nominating (hence some nods in his direction), the entire membership completes the final voting. And the problem here is that most – nearly all, I’ll wager – Academy members from non-musical guilds wouldn’t know a Shepard tone from a unicycle. Oh, make no mistake – they certainly have experienced the intensity created by one of Zimmer’s favorite devices, but the poor sods didn’t realize it was coming from his music. Never has that element of composition been more effective than in his brilliantly camouflaged score for Chris Nolan’s Dunkirk.
Shepard tones – where notes are superimposed while base volume is increased and decreased – create an auditory illusion of intensity in pitch when it actually never changes. This triggers suspense in the listener and Zimmer has used it effectively a number of times, but never with as much force and power than he does in Dunkirk.
In addition to his tonal style, Zimmer finds more uses for “ticking” (another fave of his) than a Swiss watchmaker. This time around, it’s the first sound we here as we are dropped into the story, running. The device subliminally suggests some kind of inevitability, that shit is about to go down and we are in for it. The tick-tick-tick is not emanating from an added sound effect or from the pacemaker of the person sitting next to you – it’s Zimmer’s score.
Nolan also relies on Zimmer to handle the obligatory coda and epilogue at the end of the film. We don’t need a flourishing fanfare or anthem at the end of Dunkirk; neither do we want a sentimental postscript in either uplifting words or music. What Zimmer slyly gives us is a hint, a glancing sampling, of Elgar’s Variation IX, or Nimrod, a work considered essential to ceremonies and memorials, and that is a staple of every Remembrance Sunday. It’s a piece of music instantly recognizable by most who may not be able to name it, but know precisely how to react emotionally when they hear it. Zimmer doesn’t simply play the work outright – it only takes three or four notes behind the action to spark the deep recesses of memory and articulate what we are feeling.
If Nolan’s objective was to create an immersive experience, Zimmer’s score does much of the heavy lifting to achieve this. I can’t think of a score since John Williams’ Jaws soundtrack that has been as instrumental in achieving the director’s goals. I had listened to the score a few times before viewing the film, curious as to what direction Nolan would be taking and knowing that Zimmer would provide me with clues, but I had no idea how seamless and unobtrusive the score would be when it was incorporated into the overall sound design of the final product.
Like most of Christopher Nolan’s best films, the Dunkirk experience gets better with each viewing. When we know what to watch and listen for we see and hear all of Nolan’s plates spinning in complicity as he impels us through an event that is better understood by experiencing it than just hearing or reading about it. Ultimately, it is Zimmer’s score that helps us understand on an organic level that there are no winners in war, only those who are left.