- Directed by: John Madden.
- Written by: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan. Based on The Debt (2007).
- Starring: Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, Helen Mirren, Jesper Christensen, Tom Wilkinson, Romi Aboulafia, Ciarán Hinds.
- Rated: R.
The most effective scene in The Debt appears twice in the movie. Set to New Year’s Eve fireworks, a Mossad agent senses a disturbance with her prisoner. A chase ensues, and she shoots him with a pistol from a long distance. This scene is repeated later in the film, but there’s a twist. Pity this is the film’s only twist.
The Debt concerns three Mossad agents hunting a Nazi war criminal, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the infamous Surgeon of Birkenau. The operation is headed by Stefan (Marton Csokas) and the team includes the enigmatic David (Sam Worthington) and rookie field agent Rachel (Jessica Chastain). The trio, as all fictional trios involving one female and two males must, becomes a love triangle. David is left dejected as Stefan and Rachel form a relationship, though Rachel has stronger affections for David. The trio hunts down Vogel who’s posing as a doctor in East Berlin. But their plan is too good to be true, and soon it falls apart. They’re left to fend for themselves with Vogel as hostage. A sense of claustrophobia pervades this sequence, heightened by the agents’ intense hatred of Vogel – their families were slaughtered in the Holocaust.
This story is intercut with a strand from the present, in which Rachel and Stefan are divorced and David is a recluse. Rachel and Stefan’s daughter (Romi Aboulafia) has written an account of their escapades. Here the squad is played by Helen Mirren (as Rachel), Tom Wilkinson (as Stefan), and Ciarán Hinds (as David). These older actors are more pedigreed and refined than their younger counterparts, but the younger actors have more to do. Indeed, Ciarán Hinds has only one initial scene and two or three blink-and-you-miss-it flashbacks.
This initial scene is a remarkable use of perspective and camera work. We follow Hinds and a background Mossad agent through the streets of Israel while the titles float past us. Director John Madden uses a continuous shot behind Hinds, and he sets the stage for wonderful action shots throughout the film. There’s no quickly cut artificial adrenaline here – scenes are deliberate, depending on its characters and fight choreography to quicken our pulses. Madden’s most well-known film, Shakespeare in Love, also features an all-star British cast with historical ties – but the two films couldn’t be more different.
This cast is great, but the film can’t live up to their names. The “big twist” is the film’s only twist. The Debt isn’t trying to be escapist or particularly deep – Madden makes his one theme quite transparent. The film aims to be a twisty, cerebral thriller but ends up too simple and flat to work. Better films like State of Play or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy keep you guessing until the last minute, cycling through an endless infinite of characters and possibilities. Any spy movie worth its salt chiefly features paranoia, but there is no gray area here. The Debt spells out its ending in its first five minutes. What’s more, this finale just isn’t exciting, gathering all the tension built up from the flashback storyline and scattering it with a ridiculous “action” sequence.
As for the cast, Jessica Chastain manages to convincingly emulate Helen Mirren physically, and she provides the movie’s key performance. Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington may be underwritten, but they each have a few quietly powerful scenes. Jesper Christensen makes for a colorful villain, restrained but vicious. But Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson are given mere minutes to shape performances and thus less effective. In another film, I would’ve taken away entire scenes and monologues. In The Debt, I’ll remember one or two of Mirren’s facial expressions, a grave close-up of Wilkinson. In some films, this wouldn’t be the point. Names like ‘Mirren’ and ‘Wilkinson’ would take the backseat to explosives and rambunctious chases. The problem is, The Debt doesn’t seem to have much of a point. ☆☆