A film review by Craig J. Koban December 14, 2011


2011, R, 112 mins.


Rachel: Helen Mirren / Vogel: Jesper Christensen / Stefan Tom Wilkinson / David: Ciaran Hinds / Young David: Sam Worthington / Young Rachel: Jessica Chastain / Young Stefan: Marton Csokas

Directed by John Madden / Written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Strongman, based on the film “Ha-Hov,” written by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum


In English, German and Ukrainian, with English subtitles.

THE DEBT reminded me of a time when thrillers were more about accentuating tension and suspense over high-octane action and frenetic editing.  In our day of CGI-embellishment and MTV-styled, seizure inducing camera work, THE DEBT almost comes off as a Cold War relic, which is ironically what makes it work so effectively.  It understands that strong performances, stalwart and low key direction, and an evocative sense of atmosphere are the crucial cornerstones of a good espionage thriller.   

The film – based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same name by Assaf Berstein – is a fictional drama-thriller that largely concerns three Israeli Mossad intelligence agents out to seek revenge for past sins perpetrated by a Nazi war criminal.  The agents must engage in a well planned, but sneakily dangerous clandestine mission to kidnap their prey and bring him to trial for his inhuman actions against man during World War II.  That aspect of the story, told during the 1960’s, is only one part of THE DEBT; the other – an arguably more compelling – aspect of the film deals with the agents 30 years after the fact – now in the winter of their respective lives and considered patriots for their actions against the Nazi – as they try to deal with how the public worships them as courageous heroes that served the greater good.   

Intriguingly, the film not only shows the consequences of the Holocaust on two different generations of people in time, but it also ruminates on the notion of truth: Is it okay for a lie to be propped up for the public to consume as reality and, perhaps more significantly, should heroes be venerated for past deeds that perhaps were not deserving of such praise?  There is a compelling push-pull between the film’s two time periods that pits how a group of younger, more idealistic, and perhaps more naďve people have come to grips with their actions as agents in the present when their age and life experiences have allowed them to mature into more pessimistic and remorseful beings.  

The film begins in 1997 by introducing us to the three aforementioned Mossad agents, all in their late 50’s: Rachel (Helen Mirren) whose face contains hellish physical signs of her past mission; her ex-husband, Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) who is now confined to a wheel chair; and David (Ciaran Hinds) whose deeply melancholic face shows emotional battle scars that have never fully healed.  All three agents have shared in the experience of their past mission and are now considered national treasures, with Rachel's own daughter publishing a book about what happened during it.  While on tour to promote the book, though, Rachel finds herself dealing with the past and the coming to grips with the notion that her actions with her comrades three decades earlier may not be entirely accurate. 

The film then flashes back to 1966 East Berlin – and then subsequently jumps back and forth between the past and the present – as we see the younger Rachel (Jessica Chastain) meeting her other fellow agents (played by Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas respectively).  Their mission is to capture “The Surgeon of Birkenau”, Dr. Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) who enacted horrific scientific experiments on Jews during WWII.  Simply put, they must apprehend him via any means necessary and return him to Israeli for trial. 



The mission may seem fairly simple for three highly trained and determined Mossad agents, but its nonetheless beset by several obstacles both large and small.  Firstly, they must capture the notorious doctor in secret and then sneak him out of the country as to not spark a national incident during the height of the Cold War.  Secondly, and perhaps more difficultly, they must infiltrate the Nazi war criminal in plain sight: he has assumed a new identity and now works as a gynecologist.  This, of course, makes Rachel the best person for the job, as she poses as a new patient of the doctor and is forced to endure the indignity of having this repulsively inhuman cretin put his hands in places that no woman would ever allow a Nazi.  While making it through the humiliation of having herself placed multiple times in stirrups to confront the doctor, she and her cohorts do manage to nab him, but they miss a crucial train station rendezvous that would have got him quietly out of the country.  They are now forced to keep him as a gagged and bound hostage until they can plan their next move. 

Keeping this old Nazi at bay requires some rather large willpower for Rachel and her team, seeing as Vogel plays some very intense mind games with them throughout his captivity to thwart their collective composures and pit themselves against each other.  Christensen is coldly and creepily superb here for playing a man that seems to relish going to great, unnerving lengths to have his way with the heroes through just his unsettling words.  Rachel, David, and Stefan are forced to come to grips with their mission and duty to country while dealing with their uneasy thoughts of wanting to murder this fiend at any given moment.   

Csokas and Worthington (the latter being an underrated actor for dialing into his characters with a introverted intensity) are solid, but the real performance standout here is Chastain, who manages to imbue in Rachel an interior feminine vulnerability alongside an outer rough, rugged, and steely eyed kick ass-agent that wants to get the job done.  If you want to see the true breakout performer of 2011, then just look at Chastain’s superlative body of work in THE TREE OF LIFE, THE HELP, TAKE SHELTER, and now THE DEBT: you’ll not find a quartet of more complete and different performances by an actress all year…or in any other past year, for that matter. 

THE DEBT was directed rather dependably and proficiently by John Madden, who made the Oscar darling SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and what I liked best about his approach here is that he goes for a more reality-based sense of action and intrigue (that, and he knows how to drum up nail biting tension from something as potentially ludicrous as a scene between a gynecologist and his patient and turn it into a lurid nightmare).  He also does a good job juxtaposing the two time periods of the film, but he does even better when it comes to evoking the Berlin of the Iron Curtain from the 60’s, when the cloud of the Cold War loomed ominously over many facets of the Soviet side of the city.  THE DEBT does not obtrusively come off as eye candy, but Madden and cinematographer Ben Davis paint the film in a chilly, detached and subdued palette and combine that with fine location shooting to effortlessly create a sense of the time, space and mood. 

Not all of the film comes off winningly: Even though the performances by Mirren, Wilkinson, and Hinds are predictably strong, the film initially stumbles when delineating precisely whom the two older male actors are playing (I was left wondering at first whether Wilkinson was actually Worthington's or Csokas’ older doppelganger).  A climatic action scene near the film’s conclusion is almost unintentional funny and involves two combatants definitely past their primes.  Then there is the inherent soap opera-esque love triangle melodrama that occurs between the three agents in the past that seems to sort of betray the more solemn aspects of the narrative and seemingly belongs in a whole other film altogether.  Beyond that, THE DEBT also seems more like an entertaining, but less stimulating and complex version of MUNICH, which contains similar story threads of the Mossad and a dire secretive mission they must perform.   

Yet, there’s no mistaking that THE DEBT is a well acted, stylishly directed, and wholeheartedly involving Nazi-hunting spy game thriller that sprinkles in themes of accountability, revenge, guilt, and atoning for the past.   That, and Chastain proves yet again that she's an an intoxicatingly inviting screen presence that just seems to get more natural, poised, and secure with each new diverse role.  She’s a dynamite breakout talent to watch.  For sure.   

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