Happy New Year! I thought I’d start out the first week of 2013 with a Weekend Movie Preview column since it’s been a while. Things were pretty hectic last month between the holidays and voting on my favorite movies from 2012 with my colleagues in the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Now that I’m rested up and I’ve seen a few films, I’m ready to tell you my thoughts about them.
The flicks I’m going to discuss today have already received limited release in theaters, but they’re opening in Boston this weekend, which means I’m allowed to talk about them now. Today’s column contains my reviews of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” and Gus Van Sant’s “Promised Land.”
ZERO DARK THIRTY
"Zero Dark Thirty" is a chronicle of the ten-year hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following the September 2001 terrorist attacks. The tale focuses on a CIA operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain), who obsessively devotes herself to gathering the intelligence needed to track him down. In the film, we see how her efforts led to the operation by the Navy SEAL Team 6, which raided bin Laden’s compound and killed him in May 2011.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker,” “K-19: The Widowmaker”)
Writer: Mark Boal (“The Hurt Locker”)
Notable SupportingActors: Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton
MY TAKE: "Zero Dark Thirty" was at the top of my list in 2012...as the most overrated movie of the year. My colleagues describe it as masterfully directed, taut, well-acted, and pulse-pounding, but I don't feel like I saw the same film. From top to bottom I was unimpressed and unengaged by this thriller.
Although I wasn’t wowed by Bigelow's previous flick "The Hurt Locker" either, I at least understood the appeal. In it Bigelow tells a gritty story about army bomb diffusion experts where every day could be their last. The director creates a palpable sweaty tension and even though the film becomes a bit monotonous, it worked for me.
I didn’t experience that same intensity at all with “Zero Dark Thirty.” The movie works at a plodding pace as it traces the decade-long hunt for bin Laden, making it difficult to get excited. Adding to the agony is the no frills, pedestrian directing which creates little sense of urgency during the film. Even parts that are supposed to be riveting, are predictable and drawn out like the endlessly long scene where you’re waiting for a car bomb to kill someone and the protracted raid on bin Laden’s compound.
Another annoyance is that there’s almost no character development for Maya. We know that she’s smart and the only thing she wants is to catch bin Laden, but we have no idea why she wants to do it, where she comes from, why she’s the right person for the job, and how she knows so much about this field. It’s hard to root for her as a result.
Chastain’s performance did little to engage me as well. Most of the time to show her character is stressed her hair is disheveled and she has a spacey look in her eyes. This look is one you see several times in the film: a close-up of her spacing out. Despite scenes where she becomes angry and starts yelling it’s also hard to feel the true conviction behind her actions. I will say though, that in the final shots of the film she does turn up the intensity and creates a compelling moment. I wish there was more of that level of acting throughout.
A lot of people have argued with me that the reason this movie is so great is because it’s so restrained and it recounts everything as it happened without sensationalizing it. But that’s exactly why I find it boring. If you want to tell something exactly how it happened, make a documentary. If you want to make a feature film, take a few artistic liberties, even if they’re minor. You can still tell a story that’s mostly true and entertaining (See “Lincoln” and “Argo”).