If there's a masterful cinematic trick in Zero Dark Thirty, it's the drama's ability to masquerade as truth. Taking on more of a documentary feel than the reverent re-enactment flavor of, say, Lincoln, Kathryn Bigelow's film harnesses the plausibly messy brutality of counterterrorism.
The pounding headache of a film is nowhere close to a flag-waving tale of patriotic conquest you might have expected. Instead it's a blind, bloody manhunt that gawks unflinchingly at the murky morality of black ops, sick and bizarre interrogation routines and inspid backroom meetings that amount to throwing darts at a board to flail for success, collatoral damage of innocent lives be damned. Like Bigelow's similarly dark The Hurt Locker, the film is less interested in action than the angst that accompanies inaction.
That is, until it throws up its hands and becomes an action movie at the climax. Once it's time, Bigelow dispenses with the character study and philosophizing and transforms into a video game. The mesmerizing raid of the infamous Pakistani stronghold explodes in a dizzy whirlwind of justified, exuberant bloodlust.
But it's a final scene, involving Jessica Chastain is Maya, an American agent who tracks down Osama bin Laden with a Javert-like obsession, that sticks with you long after the credits roll.
Chastain, who has emerged from obscurity to acting's top echelons in the span of 24 months, seems willing to bleed for the movie's success. Her heart-darkened journey from eager, idealistic junior agent to hardened interrogator and finally to calculating tactician echoes the American culture's metamorphosis along the winding, decade-long labyrinth to catch and dispatch its bearded bogeyman. Having dedicated her existence to the job at the expense of her humanity, Maya hurts until she can no longer recognize the emotion, or any feeling whatsoever. She's maybe a more grounded version of the Claire Danes character in Homeland.
Other than Chastain's soul-baring performance, what I most respected about the film was its general indifference to telling a traditional story. Bigelow is more interested in leading toward pitfalls and dead ends than creating the mirage of a stepladder to the ultimate bin Laden slapdown. I felt sick, angry, exhausted and thrilled at different points. And once it was over, I was left a little empty, staggered by the artistry and sad that it was over. I was all too aware that something spectacular had just washed over me and was now gone.
Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Joel Edgerton. Written by Mark Boal. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Rated R. 157 minutes.