"The Debt"

I’ve always had a slight fascination with Nazi war criminals and their pursuers. I can’t tell you why, exactly, other than the obvious appeal of justice being done but regardless, the whole concept always piques my interest. I never miss a film that centers on this subject and if I come across a TV show that delves into the subject, I’ll record it every time. “The Debt”, therefore, has been on my radar for quite some time. Originally slated for a late 2010 release, it’s been pushed back a couple of times until finally being dumped at the end of the summer, which is never a good sign. Still, with its quality cast and interesting subject matter I went in to “The Debt” with relatively high expectations and was rewarded nicely for my patience.

In 1966, three young Mossad agents are sent to East Berlin and given the task of capturing Nazi doctor Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) and bringing him to trial in Israel. The team consists of Stephan (Marton Csokas), David (Sam Worthington), and Rachel (Jessica Chastain), who is the key to their plan as Vogel, known as the Surgeon of Birkenau, has been working as a fertility doctor since the end of the war. Posing as a wife unable to get pregnant, Rachel drugs Vogel and her teammates smuggle him out of the clinic. But when their plan to get him across the Berlin Wall fails, the agents are left to wait in East Berlin with their silver tongued hostage. On a rainy New Year’s Eve, Vogel is shot dead during an escape attempt, allowing the agents to return home without their prize but as heroes nonetheless.  We fast forward 30 years when rumors begin to circulate about a great secret the agents have held on to since that fateful night in Berlin. With their reputations on the line, it is left up to Rachel (now played by Helen Mirren) to cover up their secret once and for all.

“The Debt” weaves a compelling tale that doesn’t so much keep you guessing as it does keep you engaged, a slow burn that stalls at times but never becomes boring. It’s a fairly straight forward thriller though the narrative unfolds in a non-linear form, jumping back and forth between 1966 and 1997. “The Debt” is taut and director John Madden (not that John Madden though now that I think about yes, yes I would watch a movie director by that John Madden) does an excellent job of keeping the film’s momentum moving through the first two acts. The third act was a bit of a letdown for me. The conclusion is fairly obvious and while I don’t think it was the desire of the filmmaker’s plan to keep the twist a giant secret (I believe you’re intended to know the majority of what’s going to happen) I would have liked the film to get to it with a little more urgency.

Where “The Debt” excels is in the outstanding performances of its pitch perfect cast. Top billing goes to the older versions of the Mossad agents, Mirren, Tom Wilkinson (Stephan), and Ciaran Hinds (David), and each hold their own. Mirren is asked to do the most work amongst these three and she does a solid job of exhibiting the mark that the weight a 30 year secret would leave on a person. Wilkinson isn’t used much, quite honestly, and isn’t given much to work with. Hinds, though, is exquisite in each of his limited scenes. One of my very favorite “Actors Who Rarely Get Starring Roles but Are Always Awesome No Matter How Little Attention They Get” (a list known as the “Barry Pepper All-Stars”), Hinds absolutely nails his role and made me want for more. As their younger versions, both Csokas and Worthington give strong portrayals. Their characters are dramatically different, Stephan overflowing with arrogance and confidence while David boils with quiet rage, and each is given depth by the actors. Jespersen, too, gives Vogel a terrifying aura of refined hatred and menace. Vogel really isn’t given much room to develop but Jespersen makes the most of his screen time.

But in the end, “The Debt” hangs entirely on the performance of Chastain who gives Rachel equal parts fear and courage, which is exactly what I would imagine an inexperienced field agent would have when confronted with a monster like Vogel. Her portrayal is measured and cautious and often her best moments are those in which she does not speak but instead lets her eyes and body language do the talking. You have to wonder what life must be like for Chastain, an actress that virtually no one had heard of at the beginning of the year. With only a handful of credits to her name, the best of which is a short stay on one of the “Law and Order” spinoffs, by the end of the year, she will have appeared in no less than six films in 2011 and has vaulted herself into the “Leading Lady” category. In a film featuring some incredible actors who have garnered a ton of attention over the years, it is Chastain who stands out and who carries the film. It is a terrific performance.

In the end, I don’t think “The Debt” as a whole is equal to the sum of its better parts. There’s a lot of good here but beyond Chastain, there’s nothing truly great about the film. Madden and his group of writers (including “X-Men: First Class” director Matthew Vaughn) have crafted a quality thriller that has plenty of moments but isn’t overly impressive. In essence, it is good but not special, though certainly worth the price of admission.

Grade: B+

Would that John Madden use a telestrator on his own film?