In my Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark review last week, I talked about the peculiar season of “Craptember,” the release window for movies not spectacular enough to be summer blockbusters, not prestigious enough to be Oscar bait, and not bad enough to be released at the start of the year. Well, it looks like the season will be over in record time this year. Don’t get me wrong, the multiplexes still have such misfits as Colombiana, My Idiot Brother, Apollo 18, Shark Night 3D, A Good Old-Fashioned Orgy, the fourth Spy Kids movie, etc. On the other hand, there are such movies as Drive, Contagion, Moneyball, 50/50, and Take Shelter, all coming out this month with a ton of critical acclaim behind them.
The first shot of the Oscar season is The Debt, a film that’s been on my radar for quite some time, since it was originally supposed to be released last December 29th. A management reshuffle at Miramax caused the film’s release to be delayed at the last minute, though the Oscar die for last year had been pretty well cast by that point, so maybe they inadvertently did the movie a favor. Plus, the film had been completed by that point, so no harm done.
Even without the impressive cast (I’ll get to them in a minute), this one has a very interesting pedigree behind it. The movie was directed by John Madden, who took the 1998 Academy Awards by storm with Shakespeare in Love and hasn’t done anything noteworthy since. Among the writing credits are Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, both of whom you may remember from such gritty awards darlings as Stardust, Kick-Ass, and X-Men: First Class. What a fascinating little melting pot we have here, no?
The movie follows a trio of Israeli-Mossad agents — Rachel Singer, David Gold, and Stefan Peretz — through two periods of time. We start in 1997, when these characters are being played by Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson. The movie begins with a book that has been written about a heroic and life-threatening mission that they undertook back in 1966. The book was written by Rachel’s daughter — Sarah, played by Romi Aboulafia — who also happens to be Stefan’s daughter. Naturally, our three agents are drawn to each other by the event, but they hardly seem entirely pleased about it.
Right off the bat, there’s intrigue. We see an account of what happened on the mission, but there’s plenty of implication that what we just saw may not have been entirely true. Just in the way our three older leads act and play off each other, it’s clear from the start that they know something no one else does. Oh, and David commits suicide. That’s a telltale sign as well. Anyway, it’s obvious that something is going on and we the audience have no idea what it is. On that note, the movie switches over to the younger cast and doesn’t switch back until the third act.
The second act takes place in 1966, when the Mossad agents are being played by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, and Marton Csokas. They’ve been assigned to locate and capture a former Nazi doctor who used to perform sick and immoral experiments on inmates at Birkenau. The doctor is Dieter Vogel (Jasper Christensen), who has since taken a job as a gynecologist in East Berlin. Unfortunately, the Soviets aren’t friendly to Israeli spies, so the agents have to do their work incognito.
Part of Rachel’s cover is that she’s married to David, and the two of them are clearly attracted to each other, yet we know from the ’90s storyline that she married, divorced, and gave birth to a child with Stefan. Though of course, they don’t know that yet. They’re just three agents holed up in a tiny apartment, held together with their mission of international importance. Though since Rachel is the only woman of the group, she’s naturally the odd person out from start to finish. Needless to say, it’s a very interesting love triangle. But let’s get back to the plot.
Because Vogel is a gynecologist, the obvious next step is to send in Rachel as a patient, so that she can identify — and later detain — the mark. Now, here’s a woman trained in Krav Maga, who lost her mother in the Holocaust, sent to kidnap a man who tortured hundreds of Jews in the name of pseudo-science… and to do that, she has to let him into her pelvis up to his wrists. If that’s not an awkward and terrifying position to be in, I don’t know what is.
Anyway, our team kidnaps Vogel, then works to get him out of the country and into Israel to stand trial for his crimes against humanity. Alas, the escape attempt goes pear-shaped, so the agents have to keep Vogel alive and in captivity until someone comes up with a Plan B. Oh, and Rachel was seen in the getaway, which means that she’s stuck in the apartment as well.
I wish I could talk about the plot after this point. I mean, you’ve probably guessed for yourself that something else goes wrong, but I can’t in good conscience say what it is. Even though it is the focus of half the runtime and the core of the film’s thematic material — not to mention the movie’s namesake — spoiling it would rob the film’s first half of its power. So instead, I’ll just move on and talk about the actors.
First and foremost is Jasper Christensen. A different actor might have tried to play a Nazi doctor with a bit of sympathy or nuance, implying some amount of regret for his old actions, which would tie in very nicely with the main theme of the movie. But not Christensen. No, Christensen plays Vogel as a complete and unrepentant demon. That was quite a bold move that could easily have made the villain look cartoonish in what’s otherwise a deadly serious film, but Christensen totally makes it work. He plays Vogel as a truly dangerous man, even in captivity. He’s charismatic, he’s manipulative, he knows exactly which emotional buttons to push, and he’s smarter than all of his three captors put together.
Of the three main characters, it’s David who unquestionably gets the short end of the stick. Ciaran Hinds does a perfectly good job with the character, but David kills himself off so early in the proceedings that Hinds gets precious little to do. Then there’s the matter of Hinds’ counterpart, Sam Worthington.
Worthington’s already built up quite a crowd of haters, but there are two reasons why I could never bring myself to join them. First is that I own a copy of Macbeth, the Australian 2006 modernization of the Shakespeare play, with Worthington in the title role. Though Worthington ate his way through quite a bit of scenery in that performance, he still did a serviceable job of delivering the Bard’s dialogue, given the film’s modern setting. Secondly, Worthington rose to fame through Terminator Salvation, Avatar, and Clash of the Titans, three movies so fundamentally flawed that their leading man would have been handicapped out of the gate no matter who played him. After Clash, I decided that I was going to withhold judgment on Worthington until I saw him in a decent movie, surrounded by solid talent.
And now… I’m sorry, but I just can’t avoid saying that he didn’t live up to my expectations. It breaks my heart to say it, since he’s clearly trying so hard and he only misses the mark by a very short distance, but he just couldn’t hold his own against these other actors. I don’t know what he needs to really knock it out of the park, but until he finds the writer, the director, the premise, or the character that he can work with to deliver a slam-dunk performance and shut up the haters for good, maybe it’s best if he just went away for a while.
Having said all that, Worthington’s performance isn’t nearly enough to ruin this movie. It’s just that no matter how hard he tries, he ends up looking slightly bland next to the actors he’s working with.
Speaking of which, Tom Wilkinson and Marton Csokas both do admirably as the group’s alpha male. One of these men is a highly-respected actor with over 100 credits to his name on IMDB, and the other is probably best known as Celeborn from the Lord of the Rings movies. These are two very different actors with two entirely different backgrounds, yet they work together to create an nicely consistent character. Of course, it helps that Stefan has the least dynamic character development arc of our three protagonists, but still. Whether young or old, Stefan has a primal sort of energy that’s always captivating to watch, and his good intentions keep the character sympathetic in spite of all the immoral things he does.
Still, this is unquestionably Rachel’s story. She’s the one who put her genitals on the line for the mission, she’s Vogel’s primary caregiver after the capture, she’s the center of the bizarre love triangle, she’s the one whose daughter authored that damn book, and when the climax rolls around, she’s the only one of the trio who takes part. Of all the characters in this movie, Rachel is the one who develops the most. Luckily, she was played with courage, intelligence, and the slightest bit of vulnerability by two damn good actors. Helen Mirren needs no introduction, and it should go without saying that she’s marvelous. So let’s talk about Jessica Chastain instead.
My head is still reeling from Chastain’s introduction to the mainstream. In 2010, she was a nobody. In 2011, she has six movies released, including The Debt, The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, and The Help, which is going on its third straight week at #1 in box office grosses. This would be impressive enough if she was a supporting player who came to be a lead actress, but no: Chastain plays a lead role in every one of these movies! Even better is that Chastain is actually able to pull off this Herculean feat. She’s beautiful and she’s an amazing actress, which leads me to wonder why she hasn’t been cast in anything high-profile until now. I have absolutely no idea how this happened, but I wish it happened a lot more often.
Getting back to the movie, we’ve got a cast of solid actors, a wonderfully-paced story, and a script that’s loaded with twists and tension. This would all be more than enough to warrant a recommendation, yet something still felt missing. It took a lot of thinking for me to figure out what was wrong with this movie, and I think I’ve figured it out: Not enough catharsis.
From the opening minutes, this movie is relentless in how it steadily builds up tension. In every action scene and in every plot turn, there’s something to raise the stakes and ratchet up the drama. This is wonderful for a movie, but any story with so much set-up had better have one hell of a pay-off. But such a “wow” finish is lacking here. The climax is exciting enough, but it’s predicated on a coincidence that’s way too large to be easily swallowed. Additionally, the climax is designed in such a way that if Rachel had kept walking and skipped the event altogether, it would have affected the storyline very little, if at all. Worst of all, the film cuts out before we can see the aftermath, which might have provided the thematic and emotional release that this movie needed so badly.
In spite of my misgivings about the finale, I have no problem giving The Debt a recommendation. The acting is solid, the pacing is great, and the tension is palpably thick at all times. This may not be a great movie, but it’s still a very, very good one.