The Debt traces fictional events taking place in 1965 as three young Mossad agents are charged with the duty of bringing Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a Nazi war criminal referred to as the “Surgeon of Birkenau”, to justice. A remake of Assaf Bernstein’s 2007 film of the same name, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) tells the story of Rachel (Jessica Chastain/Helen Mirren), David (Sam Worthington/Ciaran Hinds) and Josef (Marton Csokas/Tom Wilkinson), covering the details of their mission 30 years ago and how it has changed their lives ever since.
Bouncing back and forth in time, The Debt is a satisfying thriller that is almost so subtle it feels like it’s based on a true story. The balance between story and attempts to thrill is this film’s strongest asset. Situations aren’t exaggerated in order to make for increased tension, instead the heat of the moment and occasional romantic asides keep things moving along.
Much of the running time is spent in 1965 Berlin where Rachel, David and Josef are holed up in anticipation of capturing Vogel. Soon, preparation turns to action, and upon Vogel’s capture we reach the film’s action centerpiece resulting in the story’s first major shift, leading up to events that will define the next 30 years of the trio’s lives.
As a result of what takes place, the story of their heroics is retold in a book written by Rachel’s daughter (Romi Aboulafia) 30 years later. The details of which have a profound effect on the rest of the story.
Playing the younger versions of the three leads, Chastain, Worthington and Csokas serve their characters well, not to mention this is the coming out party for Chastain whose work in Terrence Malick’s upcoming Tree of Life is already said to be top notch. She gives a good showing here in a role that is essentially the lead character of the film. She’s mirrored by Helen Mirren who plays Rachel 30 years later and the two make for an impressive combination.
Mirren, for that matter, is striking. While playing a retired Mossad agent, Mirren brings a commanding and competent presence to her character. Wilkinson and Csokas’s roles are minor in comparison.
Madden directs the film as a straightforward thriller and Thomas Newman’s score reinforces this aspect. Despite the fact the film deals with a sadistic murderer from the Nazi regime we are only greeted by a few gruesome images of his “work”. Instead the tension is ratcheted up as Rachel must visit Vogel for gynecological examinations in an effort to get close to him. For the most part everything works, up until the loosey-goosey third act.
Mirren, Wilkinson and Csokas get their time on screen for much of the film’s finale and it’s not a terrible ending to what was a rather good film up to that point, it’s just a bit of a letdown. About two-thirds of the way through The Debt hits a turning point and from there nothing new is particularly revealed and the emotional high it reached can’t be sustained. This film isn’t ruined, but it gets beat down a couple of notches.
For the most part this is a quality thriller that makes good use of flashbacks and flash-forwards — using them to tell the story rather than as a lazy storytelling device. I don’t expect The Debt to break down any box-office doors, but those that do show-up for it later this December should walk out satisfied.