REVIEW: Deep Cast Can't Make The Debt Pay Off
No one comes out looking good in The Debt, a grim thriller from director John Madden: Not the Nazi purveyor of concentration camp atrocities, which is a given, but not the trio of young, dedicated Mossad agents sent to bring him to justice after the war either. The film's a remake of a 2007 Israeli effort that never made it to US theaters, but that presumably carried with it a sense of self-critique, of taking on national mythologizing. Forgoing that focus, The Debt comes across as critical of human nature in general, as a tale of self-interest winning out over the greater good. It's a bitter pill to swallow, particularly when the character who first offers up this assessment is the aforementioned Nazi monster.
The Debt cuts between two eras and two sets of actors playing the characters as agents in the field and as calcified Mossad retirees. In 1997, Helen Mirren is Rachel Singer, a national hero whose daughter Sarah (Romi Aboulafia), a journalist, has just published a book about the 1965 mission her mother carried out in with colleagues Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) and David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds). Stephan, who's wheelchair-bound, has become a government higher-up. David is doing... less well. In 1965, Rachel, Stephan and David are played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington, and they've just installed themselves in East Berlin, where they're planning to confirm that a gynecologist named Dr. Bernhardt is the war criminal once known as Dieter Vogel (an appropriately sinister Jesper Christensen), the "Surgeon of Birkenau."
In the official story, the one presented in Sarah's book and the one she and the rest of the country believe happened, the three capture Dieter and keep him imprisoned in the leaky apartment in which they've been living, he makes an escape attempt, and a seriously injured Rachel manages to shoot him just before he vanishes into the city. What actually occurred is revealed in strategic slices as the mission unfolds and as, in 1997, it becomes clear that the three agents have been keeping a major secret that is in danger of being revealed -- public knowledge of which would jeopardize the respectable lives that two of them, at least, have established for themselves. And there are other elements to account for, though not all turn out to relate to that Berlin mission: how Stephan was injured, for example, or what happened to David and who fathered Rachel's child. (The mystery of how Worthington ages into Hinds, however, is left unanswered.)
Though it's in grayish 1965 that most of the action takes place, including several tense, well-directed setpieces surrounding the investigation and apprehension of the Mengele-inspired Dieter, it's the dreamlike brightness and shiny surfaces of '90s Tel Aviv that's more compelling. Part of this is due to casting -- Worthington is fine, Csokas and Chastain (who, thanks to the whims of release dates, suddenly seems to be in every other movie) better, but they still seem flimsy compared with the brittle, complicated characters they're going to become and the acting heavyweights who embody them. Mirren, who not long ago played a far less serious version of a grandmotherly agent called out of retirement in RED, is all clenched control here, her Rachel no longer so worried about herself so much as what it would do to her daughter (and what her daughter would think of her) if the truth got out.
The Debt shortchanges itself severely with the weight it gives the portion of its story set further in the past. All that espionage in divided Germany is more immediately movie-friendly, not to mention filled with romantic intrigues and photogenic period outfits, but this is a story about consequences, and about how time smooths over but never obliterates unpleasant history. Things go wrong in Berlin, and the three agents, who are not nearly as tough as they aspire to be, end up waiting in the claustrophobic confines of that apartment with the man they're holding captive for far longer than they're planned, but thematically, that's just the lead-up to the pact they make and the tale they tell when they go home.
The Debt never really reconciles the determined, if untested, Rachel who arrives in Germany for her first excursion in the field with the one who comes back to repeatedly recount a made-up and, in context, completely shameless story involving thinking about what her late mother went through during the war when aiming her gun at the fleeing Nazi. Is she acting out of selfishness? Does she believe she's providing the people with what they need to hear? Caught between the calculated careerist Stephan and David, a man emotionally crippled by the war and his need to avenge his family, Rachel is the balanced one, the sympathetic center, but the film fumbles the disillusionment of her ethical compromises. In the end, the truth we learn simply looks like a manufactured and cynical plot twist.