- Composed by Alexandre Desplat
- Madison Gate Records / 2012 / 53m
Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the 2011 mission to dispatch justice, US-style, to Osama bin Laden. Its depiction of torture (or “enhanced interrogation” to use the CIA speak) makes it rather unsettling viewing and provokes the kind of thoughts and ethical dilemmas that most people would probably rather file away to think about another day. (Assuming most people are like me.) I don’t suppose many of the people who took to the streets to cheer at the news of bin Laden’s death are the sort of people who would watch a film like Zero Dark Thirty, but I wonder if they did see it, whether they’d be cheering at the number of people tortured by the good guys in order to get to the final military operation itself.
In any case, this is a film music website so such moral considerations can be happily left to one side and I can focus on the music, composed by Alexandre Desplat, who has turned into not just one of the most prolific film composers around but also one of the most diverse, flitting wildly between genres and seemingly mastering them all (2012 also included Argo which might be placed in the same boat as Zero Dark Thirty – but as well as that came the rousing Rise of the Guardians, the deeply thoughtful Rust and Bone, the quirky Moonrise Kingdom, and others besides).
Not surprisingly, this is a dark score. The London Symphony Orchestra is given a prominent credit, but often finds itself providing only very subtle melody while the lion’s share of a number of cues comes from electronic sound design. The opening “Flight to Compound” is a slow-burning prelude to the score, providing plenty of ominous foreshadowing of what’s to come without quite bursting to life, which is the story of much of what might nominally be termed as the action material. Exceptions include the slightly more expansive “Seals Take Off”, one of the few times the shackles are really released, with the main theme heard on low horns, brassy bursts which erupt at the end of the cue providing genuine thrills. There’s a rich nobility in “Preparation for Attack”, an electric guitar riff providing the backdrop to perhaps the score’s most expressive rendition of its main theme, conveying a sense of bravery if perhaps not exactly nobility.
More immediately easy to like are the parts of the score into which the composer injects some ethnic flavour through various wind instruments, initially in the beautifully evocative “Drive to Embassy”; later much more darkly in “Ammar” (one of many cues to feature the oft-heard Desplat electronic pulse, used here to create tension in a devastatingly-effective way). “Balawi” is an extremely beautiful piece, an extraordinary anguish evident in the haunting melody.
Only very rarely does the mood lighten at all. There is an air of Thomas Newman about the easygoing piano opening and pizzicato string closing to “21 Days”, perhaps the most straightforward piece on the album (and even that darkens considerably in its middle section). The pizzi strings do return much later in “Picket Lines”, but this time it’s pure Desplat, with that electronic pulse (and a slightly odd separate synthetic noise) building a searing tension. “Maya on Plane” provides a considerable emotional release, a dignified restraint maintained but a few shackles let go as the strings swell for the first and only time in the score.
There are some cues here which provide compelling accompaniment to the film but are harder going on the 53-minute album. Take “Monkeys”, which is essentially a short rhythmic pattern repeated on percussion for three minutes with the same little phrase repeating less often over the top; it’s gripping in context but you have to be in the mood to be challenged to find reward from it on the album. If you’re in that mood, there are rewards aplenty here, none more so than the general atmosphere, which is only helped by those pieces such as “Monkeys” – Desplat has taken huge care over how it’s all created and sustained. Zero Dark Thirty is a score drawn from very dark textures, only occasionally opening up and offering easier pickings; perfectly appropriate for the film, but the album’s not for the faint hearted. It’s more challenging and ultimately perhaps a little more rewarding than Argo, which was hardly a laugh-a-minute itself.
I find it very hard to fathom how this composer has become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand; his fiercely intelligent approach seems so at odds with a general sense of dumbing-down. But I’m very happy it’s happened – there’s a sense with Desplat that he always has something to say, something unique to add to a film even when he may be composing in a familiar style. This particular score treads a certain line very carefully, trying to remain neutral and documentary-like against some pretty horrifying imagery while still providing the required dramatic impetus; it must have been a hard act to pull off and, while the album is one unlikely to be played all that often, it’s a very impressive piece of work.