Zero Dark Thirty is a sleek, well-oiled machine. This follow-up to The Hurt Locker (2009) from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal is a lengthy but compelling portrait of obsession that encapsulates terrifyingly modern definitions of terrorism and controversial means to an end. C.I.A agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), over the course of a decade, is portrayed via a resolute, systematic transformation of will. From naïve but flinty rookie operative – whose early exposure to the extraction of information via torture strengthens a weak stomach – she becomes the kind of lead investigator who will take no prisoners in her quest to see Osama Bin Laden’s influence eliminated.
Directed with the invasive, irresistible proficiency we’ve come to expect from Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is a remarkably immersive film though not without flaws. Taking into consideration the length and detailing in the script, the film does possess a sense of grinding relentlessness. This is partially a reflection of the central character, no doubt, but it does mean dramatic impetus is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of broadening the ‘bigger picture’.
Is Chastain’s work all it’s cracked up to be? It’s a steely, gripping performance, certainly, but somewhat devoid of colour or dimension. The relentless pursuit of the shadowy, messianic spectre of Bin Laden reveals a rare fortitude in Maya as her obsession blooms into an inexorable vendetta. We can certainly appreciate her integrity and passion on this level, but the one-track mode of thought tends to both enhance and detract from the film.
A host of quality support performances contribute to what is a flawless ensemble but Australian Jason Clarke deserves special mention for his work as the agent who becomes a valuable mentor to Maya after he first exposes her to the realities of wartime interrogation – scenes which are handled well and without any of the exploitative edge that the adverse publicity which surrounded the film may lead you to believe is present.
The ubiquitous Alexander Desplat turns in another subtly immersive score that – in the same vein of Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders’s work on The Hurt Locker – provides a dark undercurrent without ever drawing undue attention to itself. Then there’s the cinematography of another talented Australian, Greig Fraser, which contributes heavily to the increasingly palpable sense of naturalism conveyed, especially in the lengthy, tense final sequence as the compound that may house Bin Laden is finally breached.