It doesn’t take long for The Debt to suggest that the story you’re being told of three Israeli Mossad agents capturing and killing an escaped Nazi war criminal is not all it seems. In fact, when the film is actually front-loaded by the moments that would typically have been the ultimate climax, one can’t help but suspect there are plenty of secrets to be revealed. In reality it is only a single secret, and a secret on which the entire film is built. It’s also built on intrigue and espionage that make a straightforward adult drama an extremely entertaining piece of work. And while the script isn’t quite as sophisticated as much of the filmmaking and acting on display, The Debt is still a satisfying experience and a fine movie.
At the center of the story is a trio of agents seen as young, idealistic Mossad agents in the mid-60s, and as guilt-burdened elders in the late 90s. Sam Worthington and Ciarán Hinds play the past and the present versions of David, a mysteriously angry and idealistic agent that becomes a morose wander. Martin Csokas and Tom Wilkinson are the sides of Stephan, a man who is ruthless at every age. Finally at the center of the trio in any decade is Rachel, played by Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren as a strong but unsure young woman who becomes a sharp older woman who has crushed her guilt deep inside. What is clear from the beginning is that they all share a very specific secret, and the threat of their lives unraveling is what leads us into the depiction of their mission.
It is in 1965 East Berlin that the film shines, as every detail of the three agents mission is captured with interesting detail. Rachel joins the already established pairing of David and Stephan, and immediate romantic tension flares up as the agents embark on an extremely perilous set of mission objectives. Their target is the infamous “Surgeon of Burkinau” who conducted horrifying experiments on Jews during the holocaust and is now living a quiet life as a gynecologist in East Berlin. The actual spy work conducted by the group would be rather rote, where it not for the extremely uncomfortable position Rachel is put in by having to act as a patient with the doctor. This leads to a series of excellent and tense scenes, which are accentuated by the rising tensions in the group in between these mini-missions.
Eventually the mission reaches its key point at which the doctor is to be captured and extracted, which involves a highly-choreographed set of deceptions and closely-timed maneuvers. A great sequence at a train station involves the group trying to get their cargo across the country lines without being scene, and it’s rousing stuff. When everything goes wrong though, the film suddenly shifts and becomes a claustrophobic nightmare. Finding themselves trapped in hiding with their despicable target, Rachel is even more isolated than the others, having been sighted during the failed extraction. Unable to leave their safe house, a dance of psychological manipulation begins between her and the doctor– simply imagine Agent Starling being locked in a house with Hannibal Lecter chained to the radiator and you’ll have an idea how emotionally trying this becomes.
Director John Madden deftly mixes adrenaline with creeping tension, and handles both with a sophisticated eye and ear. There is an impressive use of period detail and sound design to amp up the emotional beats, be it the uncomfortable-looking stirrups and gynecological tools of the era that give each of Rachel’s doctor visits a menacing air, or a few sequences where sound cues drive extremely important moments inside of the characters. A scene involving casual piano playing is deeply moving, as a solo suddenly joined by another set of hands drives a third listening character mad with jealousy and sadness. There are moments like that all over The Debt.
All three of the young actors do excellent work during the missions, once they return to Israel with their secret, and especially in the moments when the decision is made to agree on that secret. While it’s not such a revelation that you will suddenly understand his massive blockbuster leading career, Worthington’s performance shows he is capable of vulnerability and depth, especially when a part of a larger, more delicate tapestry. He plays well off Csokas, who handles a more aggressive role with the kind of dark charm that’s great for seduction, but doesn’t age well (as we see later). It is Jessica Chastain that carries the young trio though, with her work in the sickening doctor’s examination room, throughout the mission, and in the maddeningly-confined safe house. It’s already clear that Chastain has a long, fruitful career ahead of her, and this film is a great teaser of just how great she can and will likely be. All three more than manage to extend a hand off of dimensional character-building to their older counterparts, who get to pay that off with more subtle performances becoming of their years.
Unfortunately, while on the flip-side of the film you’ll find equally assured performances from experienced actors, there is a much less satisfying half of the story being told. While all three of the characters find themselves hailed as heroes upon their return, 30 years later a more complicated picture has developed. David has been a wandering figure in the past decades, though his story takes a surprising turn very quickly in the modern part of the story. Stephan remains a high-ranking Mossad agent, wrapped up in politics and a ruthless desire to preserve his station. Rachel seems like a mostly inert woman who is focused on her family, including a daughter that has written a high-profile book about her mother’s mission. You get details of this at the beginning of the film and then once it returns from flashbacks, but doesn’t kick into gear until Rachel is informed by Stephan that a returning figure from their old mission could unravel their past as well as ruin their reputations and a large point of Israeli national pride. Eventually Rachel is saddled with handling the issues, and the film launches into a much more flaccid mirror of a spy mission that is mostly well timed driving and sneaking around through doorways. It’s all leading to a confrontation that does play out in a surprising way, but ultimately it deflates a lot of interesting ambiguity for more obvious moral storytelling.
Again, Hinds, Wilkenson and Mirren are all as excellent as one would expect, but the film’s modern day drama simply pales in comparison to its fantastic middle portion. It’s not a complete waste as the confrontation that ends the film really is frightening and loaded with a lot of difficult emotion, but is part of an overall approach that keeps the film from being anything more than “good.” A victim of its own excellent parts, the sum of the film is not as satisfying you’re led to believe it will be for much of the runtime. All of that stated, The Debt is blessed with a batch of great performances, a thrilling espionage story, and some very sharp filmmaking that makes it more than worthwhile, and it will remain memorable as a solid example of a kind of film that isn’t made as often as we might like.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars