A film review by Craig J. Koban December 14, 2011
2011, R, 112 mins.
2011, R, 112 mins.
Vogel: Jesper Christensen /
Young David: Sam
Young Rachel: Jessica Chastain /
Young Stefan: Marton
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.
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.
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
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.