Zero Dark Thirty, Declassified: Bigelow Dishes on Deeper Meaning of Closing Scene

Just because we know what happens at the end of the movie doesn't mean there's nothing unpredictable in 'Zero Dark Thirty'

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Columbia Pictures

One of the most impressive things about Zero Dark Thirty, which has been out in wide release in the U.S. for three weekends, is that it manages to maintain suspense even though we all already know what happens. It’s a movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and we don’t need a spoiler warning on the news that the hunt was successful.

But that doesn’t mean the end of the movie is predictable — so you should stop reading here if you haven’t already seen it.

(MORE: TIME’s Cover Story: Art of Darkness)

If you have seen the movie, however, you may be wondering why Maya — so stoic and static throughout her years of hunting — breaks down into sobs when the mission is over. More specifically: She boards the plane, is asked by the pilot where she wants to go and responds only with a stunned silence that slowly slides into tears. Cut to black.

All this comes after a decade of ruthless pursuit in a career for which she has sacrificed her entire life and, for the audience, after more than two hours of watching a character display no hint of emotion other than vengefulness, dedication, patriotism or anger. She wins in the end — and then she cries. But why? Is it relief? Joy? Exhaustion? Regret over what she has done in the line of duty?

Speaking shortly before the film’s New York City release, director Kathryn Bigelow answered that question: Maya cries because bin Laden’s death is not an uncomplicated victory, since it leaves us with the national and global question of “Now what?” And, likewise, after that decade devoted solely to the hunt, Maya wonders what will come next in her own life. Quite literally, she doesn’t know where she can go from that point.

(MORE: New York Film Critics: A Perfect Score for Zero Dark Thirty)

Jessica Chastain, who plays Maya, also said that the crying scene was her favorite to shoot (with her shouting match with Kyle Chandler coming in second). “To end the film on that question is far more interesting than providing an answer,” she said.

Not that the answer is readily available. The actress later told TIME she believes that, on a broad scale, we are still processing the question:

Chastain: When I got into Juilliard, that was kind of like the turning point [for me as an actor]. To get into that school was my moment of “O.K., this is now leading somewhere else.” I think my parents breathed a sigh of relief.

TIME: Is that where you were during 9/11?

Yeah, I was a student there. And actually I was also in New York for a few days when I got the news about Osama being killed. It was very strange how it came full circle.

Did that influence the way you approached the role?

Perhaps. To this day I haven’t been down to the World Trade Center. I remember everyone was going down when it happened and looking at it, and I could never bring myself to do it. I still don’t want to go down there. Perhaps that means I’m not facing something. We were all affected, and we’re in a process of figuring out what the next step is.

MORE: The First Review of Zero Dark Thirty: The Girl Who Got bin Laden