Review: The Debt

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The Debt is a film that requires some patience. The first half takes place in 1966 and deals with a mission by three Mossad agents who are charged with kidnapping a Nazi war criminal (roughly based on Dr. Josef Mengele) who is in East Berlin. The cloak and dagger stuff is well done, as the female agent (Jessica Chastain) must go undercover and see the criminal, now practicing as a gynecologist, as a patient. It can’t be easy spreading your legs and showing your vagina to a Nazi called “The Butcher of Bierkenau.”

While all this is going on there are scenes from 1997, in which the older versions of the three agents (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciaran Hinds) are in Tel Aviv. Mirren’s daughter has written a book about their mission, and Hinds is not exactly happy about it.

This is good stuff, but it’s like someone telling a long story where you’re wondering what the point is. Then, about halfway through, boom! A major plot twist that smarter viewers than me may have seen coming. From then on, The Debt is one of the better films of the year.

I’m not going to discuss the plot any more than that, lest I spoil it, as to hint at it would ruin it. Suffice it to say that the main issue of the film is the ethical and moral conundrum of telling a lie or revealing the truth, and what it means to each character.

Beyond that, the film, directed by John Madden, is a tense thriller. There are some fine set pieces, such as one in a Berlin train station and another in a Ukrainian hospital. Madden has done well with action films before–his unfairly dumped Killshot was a first-rate crime film. The younger actors dominated the first half, and Chastain, who has had a watershed summer (The Tree of Life, The Help, and now The Debt, when I had never heard of her before) is terrific as a young agent. Sam Worthington is the young Hinds (it’s always a struggle in films like this where one actor looks nothing like the actor who plays him older) and Martin Csokas is the young Tom Wilkinson. There’s also a terrifically sinister turn as the Nazi by Jesper Chriastensen.

The second half of the film is dominated by Mirren, brilliant as ever, who lives with a secret and is forced back into the secret agent business thirty years after she gave it up. I’m extremely heartened by The Debt, a movie for adults that brain-dead teenagers wouldn’t know what to make of (it’s told nonlinearly), managed to finish second in this week’s box office race, opening at multiplexes (I could have seen it at any of five different theaters in my neighborhood). I’m also glad to see that Mirren, by virtue of her dominance on the poster, was the main draw of the marketing. Imagine, a sexagenarian actress as a draw! Unthinkable!

The Debt is a remake of an Israeli film that was unreleased in the U.S., so I don’t know if this one is better. It doesn’t really matter, as this version is a superior spy movie.

My grade for The Debt: B+.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

5 responses »

  1. Didn’t really like it myself. I agree that Chastain’s very good and that the action scenes are well done, but aside from that, Madden’s primary device to build tension is to use lots of closeups of actors looking very grave. And apparently the drama wasn’t compelling enough as it was, because the filmmakers felt they had to tack on a lame soap-opera love triangle subplot to keep things going. Plus, the last act is ridiculous, culminating in a laughably dumb climax – I could hardly believe what I was seeing. What were they thinking?

    And the ethical resolution seemed completely arbitrary to me, also. At any rate, it ended in such a way that the filmmakers didn’t have to deal with any of the implications of the path they decided on.

    Haven’t decided on a final grade yet, but I think I’m leaning towards a 4/10. It’s just not very good.

    it’s always a struggle in films like this where one actor looks nothing like the actor who plays him older

    It’s funny, because even with the cast they had, this would have been much less of an issue if Csokas had played young Hinds and Worthington played young Wilkinson. Still wouldn’t have been ideal, of course, but they really couldn’t have done worse than what they did.

  2. Didn’t want to comment first, to seem I was being
    overly contradictory after Apes, but…totally agree with Brian.

  3. Didn’t want to comment first, to seem I was being
    overly contradictory after Apes, but…totally agree with Brian.

    Geez, dude … just comment. You don’t need an invitation. You don’t need to agree with anyone. You don’t need to wait for someone else to go first. You don’t really even need to compose your thoughts into one comment instead of firing off four half-formed thoughts in a row, although I guess it would be nice. You just need to get over yourself.

  4. Sigh. To reiterate what Brian said, just comment after you’ve seen the movie. I only asked Brian about Contagion because I knew he had seen it and a couple days had gone by and I was eager to learn what he thought. I had no idea you had seen The Debt. And it’s okay if you disagree with me, both you and Brian are wrong. :-)

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