Review: ‘The Debt’ Wins With Explosive Existential Thrills

By  · Published on September 8th, 2011

The Debt is a painstakingly old-fashioned drama that’s far more interested in the nuances of human behavior than exploitation or pyrotechnics.

At the same time, in telling the parallel stories of Mossad agents hunting a Nazi doctor in East Berlin circa 1966 and those same agents dealing with the consequences of that mission 30 years later, John Madden’s film evokes the existential themes that lie at the heart of Israel’s creation.

To straddle both those worlds within the constraints of a tightly-wound thriller is a considerable accomplishment. And this eloquent remake of a 2007 Israeli picture with the same name harkens back to the old-fashioned aesthetics of genre movies that mean something, films that are unafraid of drawing out big ideas between familiar lines.

The film stars Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds as the older version of agents Rachel Singer, Stephan Gold and David Peretz, who discover that the book has not been written on their mission of 30+ years ago with the finality they thought it had. Jessica Chastain, Martin Csokas and Sam Worthington play their younger selves, tracking the sadistic Doktor Bernhardt (Jesper Christensen) astride the Iron Curtain.

Love triangles, betrayals and conflicting ideologies inform the action, as does the profound psychological burden that comes with carrying the weight of a national quest for justice on your back. In the vein of Steven Spielberg’s Munich, The Debt considers the ramifications of such an impossibly pressurized mission, in which failure is a blow to individual and national pride. The panic that sets in when things haven’t gone as planned wields extra visceral impact because the agents must confront the vast, terrible PR ramifications of the perceived Israeli capitulation to a Nazi monster.

The movie is stronger during the ’60s sequences, which are rife with a sharp sense of the period, felt in stark browns and grays, long overcoats, cobblestone streets and glum overcast days. Madden brings the action sequences a classically-molded sense of how such set pieces ought to play out, giving them a coherent shape with a minimum of camera gymnastics, while consistently prioritizing character over violence. Tension builds during the intimate scenes set in a shoddy East Berlin loft, as the agents search for a way out of an ever-deepening morass.

The chameleonic Chastain stands out among all the talent assembled here; her Rachel is a fascinating assemblage of determination and unease, at once powerfully trained and undeniably vulnerable. That’s not to say the other distinguished actors aren’t their usual dependable selves. They are, but this is Chastain’s show. She’s the lifeblood of the proceedings, the most empathetic figure and the one who informs the picture’s heart.

When combined with her equally strong and very different work in The Tree of Life and The Help (not to mention the upcoming Take Shelter), this film further illustrates the unique talents of this relative newcomer. It’s not a stretch to imagine big things, and a lot of awards, in her future.

Finally The Debt stands out because within the thriller framework it ambitiously explores the high personal cost of the Israeli enterprise and the essential question of whether such a revenge mission is worth the tremendous sacrifices required. Without taking a controversial stand – this isn’t a political movie, to be sure, and it’s certainly not anti-Israel – the picture unabashedly raises complex moral questions.

That’s a courageous venture in an age populated by dumbed-down genre flicks and movies without meaning.

The Upside: This is a smart, old-fashioned thriller with a refreshing focus on character and real-world ideas, rather than flashy pyrotechnics.

The Downside: The 1997-set narrative goes in an unconvincing direction.

On the Side: The film has had a troubled road to release, having been delayed by the Miramax sale to Filmyard Holdings LLC late last year. That’s not, obviously, indicative of its quality.