Debt, The (2011)Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/07/11 10:30:11
Attach enough talent to a movie, and more often than not, you'll at least wind up with something worth watching, and "The Debt" has a fair number of good people working on it. Does it translate into a great movie? No, not really; the people involved have to settle for having made one that's okay, and at times a little better.Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) is a hero; back in 1965, as a younger woman (Jessica Chastain), she and her fellow Mossad agents David Peretz (Sam Worthington) and team leader Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas) infiltrated East Berlin and captured Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), with Rachel shooting him as he tried to escape. Thirty years later, Rachel's and Stephan's daughter Sarah (Romi Aboulafia) has written a book about the mission, and as parties are held for its release, we see that the scar on Rachel's face is only the most visible reminder that there was a cost to this mission: David (Ciarán Hinds) is clearly full of despair before walking into the path of a bus, and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) must ask his ex-wife to revisit the parts of the mission that didn't make it into their daughter's book.
The Debt doesn't quite break neatly in half, but comes close enough, with Jessica Chastain anchoring one half of the movie and Helen Mirren the other. The thing that may surprise audiences is that Chastain's is the better half. It's not perfect by a long shot, but it plays as a well-tuned Cold War thriller, with the agents quickly established as capable people up against a formidable task that goes sideways in a way that cranks the tension up a notch of two, even considering that much of how it will end is a foregone conclusion. The main storyline with Rachel having to get very close to Vogel, is exceptionally creepy in an unusual way, and the "evil bastard plays mind games with captors" segment is quite well done as well.
The opening bookend and second half, on the other hand, is not nearly as satisfying. To be fair, the seeds for why this is are planted in the flashback; while that segment could work as just a spy story, the 1996 scenes require a little more emotional investment than those set in 1965 supply. There's a lifelessness to what's going on beyond that, though; the status quo between the older Rachel and Stephan is easily deduced but relatively static; they aren't pushing against each other (or David or Sarah) until a contrived situation is introduced toward the end, which winds up scattering the characters. The finale doesn't even do the obvious complimentary callback to a line that has been repeated throughout.
That's not a strike against Helen Mirren; she gives the sort of performance that will likely look even better the second time through, with all the backstory in the viewer's mind and the reason for every hesitation or grimace clear. Jessica Chastain does nearly as well portraying the same character's early years, finding just the right balance between the spy who takes her job seriously and the girl who sees the adventure in it, while also selling just how creepy her interactions with Vogel are. The other pairings are fine as well: Sam Worthington's David has a quiet, consuming intensity that could easily become the despair Ciarán Hinds is given; Marton Csokas and Tom Wilkinson have a matching harshness, with the young man's arrogance Csokas displays easy to see evolving into Wilkinson's controlling nature. And Jesper Christensen seems to have a blast as Vogel; kicking things up a gear from creepy to ranting monster when it's called for.
And yet, director John Madden isn't able to stitch things together. Sometimes it's as obvious as death scenes that feel like they'd be more in place in a horror movie that lacks imagination than this bit of award-bait (given how good a couple action scenes in the 1965 section are, I half wonder if the Krav Maga choreographer directed them). The non-linear timeline seems to be too much for him, as well - there are two or three times when the story returns to a moment shown earlier without much in the way of new discovery.There are very few bad parts to "The Debt", but few great ones, and the majority that are good enough aren't really strung together in an exceptional manner. It's a decent, but not superlative whole, quite possibly hurt by its ambitions to be more than a thriller.
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