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Basic themes of guilt and revenge last a lifetime in “The Debt.” It deliberately doesn’t want to be that movie that lets its characters move from one body to the next and forget their brutality. Nobody is let off the hook; no matter how justified their actions seem in the beginning, at the end your feelings for all of them will likely be mixed.
There are few causes more justified than tracking down an escaped Nazi so they can be put on trial for their crimes. This is the goal of three young Mossad agents, Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephen (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington), sent to track down an evil Nazi doctor (Jesper Christensen) who performed cruel experiments on prisoners during the war.
Many movies would focus solely on that mission, but “The Debt” chooses to rotate between that period in the 60s to more than 30 years later, where the agents (now played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds) hold deep secrets and are plagued by guilt from that mission.
This choice mostly works out well for the movie and director John Madden, though the older versions of the characters are only in it in the beginning and the end. As their mission becomes more and more complicated by disruptions and failed extraction attempts, they end up trapped in a safe house in East Berlin with the evil doctor. Tensions and attractions flare in waves as Rachel becomes impregnated with Stephen’s baby and then falls in love with David. She was spotted during the mission, and must stay inside, so her cabin fever is almost justified.
Really, though, the only reasons these characters seem to do anything is to heighten their misery. For all the movie’s formal sophistication, the plot and character developments are basic, sometimes maddeningly. The actors’ faces suggest depth and emotive resonance in both time periods, but their actions are mostly one-dimensional. This is because the screenplay was more concerned with the concept than the execution.
That being said, there are many primal thrills to be had here. Madden choreographs the action in machine gun bursts, never letting a fight sequence extend past a few lethal punches or stabs. It creates a tension in every scene, because you know that at any second a conversation could explode with conflict.
Acting is perhaps this movie’s saving grace alongside that atmosphere of unpredictability. Jessica Chastain is exceptional. She’s had three big performances this year in this movie, “The Tree of Life” and “The Help” and she steals scenes in them all. A career like hers is shaping up to be something you don’t see much of anymore.
As an older version of Chastain’s Rachel, Helen Mirren is also capable, letting haunting secrets mold her face into a tragic symbol of her past. Though Mirren and Chastain have two very distinct acting styles for this character, it works because they are both exceptional and you can almost believe Rachel really did harden in her later years.
The other actors, especially Sam Worthington and Jesper Christensen, also excel. Ciarán Hinds’s older version of David deserved more screen time than he was given, and Tom Wilkinson deserved less.
“The Debt” is filled with those choices, like how much time to devote to a certain actor, that hinder the overall appeal of the premise. Madden is a director who knows how to stage a convincing whole but fails to polish the details, some of which matter more than you might think.
Take for instance a scene where the young agents clumsily realize that their Nazi captive can understand their English. They proceed to have a huge fight about how big of a failure the mission is, and then go into detail about the love triangle they are (sort of) having. They can keep a dark secret about the mission for decades, but they really can’t keep their mouths shut.
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