Legendary screenwriter William Goldman once said of the film industry, “Nobody knows anything,” and this is still mostly true, with one exception: If cinematographer Roger Deakins shot the movie, that movie is worth seeing on the biggest screen possible.
Even if 1917 were solely the most impressive work of Deakins’ remarkable career—which it is—I’d be recommending it. But the World War I movie is also one hell of a stunning storytelling experience from director Sam Mendes, co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and editor Lee Smith. “But wait,” you say, “isn’t the whole point of this movie that there aren’t any cuts? Why did they need an editor at all?”
1917’s hook (or less generously, its gimmick) is that it’s meant to unfold in a single, unbroken take. It’s one of the rare instances of a film’s marketing actually benefiting the finished film, because of the way this knowledge is both paid off... and then subverted.
1917 opens on a breeze-kissed field of flowers—the sort of image that people who’ve never even heard of Terrence Malick would reference as his. And as the camera pulled back, revealing two resting soldiers, I experienced the first of the film’s many powerful, contradictory sensations: I immediately felt boxed in by this beautiful landscape, realizing this was likely all the respite I’d be getting from the monochrome hell of the Great War.
The all-in-one-take thing is, of course, a lie. All movies are lies. There are many (mostly invisible) cuts here, thanks to Smith’s clever editing and the careful planning of Mendes and Deakins. And to spend the movie straining to spot the seams is to sacrifice the considered, powerful experience of 1917 for the sake of playing the “called it” game, as if that adds anything to the film, and as if anyone around you gives a shit you “called” anything.
1917 does have moments of respite—scenes of firelit delicacy and floating tranquility. But it moves like Morse code: Flat dashes separated by recognizable faces (Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Colin Firth) who dot 1917 with both levity and gravity before the movie launches itself back into mud-caked hell. The film rattled emotions loose in my chest, serving up nerve-jangling adrenaline cocktails like the kind I’ve “enjoyed” after narrowly avoiding a traffic accident.
For a moment near its halfway point, 1917 takes a break from its one-shot concept by doing something simple and unexpected: The picture cuts to black. In doing so, it executes the nimblest of narrative tricks in a film that consistently submerged me in swirling, sepia-toned surrealities, like a parade of hidden eye puzzles eventually resolving into rough drafts of Bosch sketches: I found I’d switched from feeling helpless, stuck, and trapped to eagerly wanting to follow the film back into the Great War. You’ll probably feel the same way. For those willing to go on its tough-as-nails, experiential journey, 1917 offers an awe-inducing reward.
1917 opens Friday, January 10 at various theaters.