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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Jessica Chastain's Performance Propels the Exquisitely Sharp But Aloof, "Zero Dark Thirty"

With her latest film Zero Dark Thirty, filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow continues her charge of completely eliminating any doubt that she's going to be to that type of female director. You know the kind, the one that purposely tries to connect with her female audience by yanking tears from them or providing any real nuance or connectivity.

And she has beaten any expectations to the contrary out of the audience with this movie that exhausts the hunt for and ultimate death of terrorist Osama bin Laden. Jessica Chastain stars as Maya, a smart CIA operative who's made it her sole mission to lead the search for bin Laden and ensure that he will no longer be a threat to anyone ever again. When we first meet her, however, she's squeamish at even the sight of blood as she watches her male counterpart (Jason Clarke) brutally interrogate a possible terrorist lackey.

But when it seems like she's played all her cards, she's the single woman left standing among a weary team of men and bravely rises to the occasion. Though the audience follows her decade-long ordeal to capture and eliminate bin Laden, not without witnessing many innocent deaths, rarely does she ever emit any emotion from the audience. In fact, with the exception of Chastain's emotionally spent final scene, which is more of a release than anything else, few areas in the film waste time tugging at the heartstrings. Rather, Maya's relentless journey seems more stressful and high-pressured than wrought with emotion and painful to endure. There could have been more of a balance, rather than a ruler-sharp portrayal of a woman tackling her position. Granted, this is expected from a character in this line of work, but it made for a very detached commitment to the character from the audience. Just when we get to see a trace of personal struggle from Maya, Bigelow quickly snaps us back to the matter at hand.

Even though that's just not Bigelow's style, she surprisingly grips audiences in the first few minutes of the film when they listen to the barrage of frightful phone calls to 911 during the September 11th attacks. Reliving those tragic moments, then following it with the scene to Chastain huddled in the corner of the interrogation room sets the tone of the movie and leaves no questions about the intentions of the story. It's clear, steady and deliberate retaliation. And there is simply no time for fear.

Chastain leaps into the role, completely shedding any remnant of every other character she's played, and attacks it with the vigor and confidence it needs. Think Carrie on TV's Homeland minus the glimmer of insanity (though it would have been understandable given her circumstances).

Unfolding like a timetable of harrowing events during this time, the movie might not elicit much empathy but it does successfully manage to push audiences to the edge of their seats, creating a heart-pounding thriller that is suspenseful despite the fact that you know what's going to happen. Alexandre Desplat's affecting score further heightens that effect. Bigelow's stark but realistic approach to Mark Boal's (with whom she first collaborated on The Hurt Locker) story is gritty and firm, leaving no room for fluff scenes (though the fleeting scene between Chastain and Jennifer Ehle, who plays a member of the retaliation crew, is much welcomed).

With a cast, which include James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler, and Mark Strong, that's committed to the increasingly tense dialogue and demanding story, Zero Dark Thirty offers audience a look at the much meticulous investigation that was shrouded in secrecy, one which led to the ultimate capture of bin Laden. But it is Chastain's performance, as restrained as it is powerful, that may just be the cherry atop this massive and meticulous film.

Rating: A-

Zero Dark Thirty is in theaters December 19th.


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