Directed by: John Madden (Proof)
Starring: Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Martin Csokas, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds
When I came out of The Debt, I ran smack into co-critic Justin Souther. As soon as I apologized for having run into him, I said, “It was perfectly fine. I’m so sick of movies that are perfectly fine.” He offered to let me review Seven Days in Utopia as a remedy, but I know he knew what I meant. The Debt is a thoroughly competent movie that is reasonably effective at being what it sets out to be—a solid little thriller. It’s also pretty hard to get excited about. Apart from being somewhat more brutal in its violence than is common in respectable-minded films, it’s simply another well-crafted movie that takes few chances and affords even fewer surprises. And if any genre needs surprises, the thriller is that genre.
The movie is being presented as a Helen Mirren film—and that’s not unfair exactly, even though it’s interesting that the scar adorning her face throughout the film is nowhere to be seen on the poster—but it should be understood that The Debt is set in two distinct times—1997 and 1966. The upshot of this is that Mirren plays Rachel Singer in 1997, while Jessica Chastain plays the character in 1966. Similarly Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds play Stephan Gold and David Peretz in 1997, while Martin Csokas and Sam Worthington play their earlier incarnations. In any case, the split results in Mirren being in only half of the movie.
The story concerns a trio of Mossad agents—long honored as heroes, especially Rachel, who shot fleeing Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel in 1966. By 1997, Rachel has married and divorced Stephan, and has a daughter, Sarah (Romi Aboulafia). Sarah has written a book about her mother, father and David that details the events in East Berlin in 1966. In fact, we learn the outcome of their mission to capture Vogel from Rachel’s reading of an excerpt of her daughter’s book at the publishing launch. But there’s a shadow over all this—one that comes in the form of the long-missing David, who, just prior to a meeting with Stephan, decides he’d prefer to step in front of a truck.
The film then starts piecing together the real events of 1966—essentially leading up to a replay of the scene where Rachel shoots Vogel—with the trio going to East Berlin to capture the Josef Mengele-like Nazi masquerading as a gynecologist named Bernhardt. The flashback segment is slickly accomplished and some real suspense is generated, even though the twist concerning the gap between the official story and reality is easily guessed. This, however, isn’t the film’s ultimate suspense piece, but it’s impossible to go into any detail about the film’s final act without giving away too much. I’ll go so far as to say that this last part is where Mirren earns her star billing.
So here we have a solidly produced, nicely crafted thriller. We also have a strong cast, none of whom can be faulted, even though the younger performers don’t have the same level of panache as their older counterparts. It can be argued—and not unreasonably—that the panache is something the young versions of the characters acquired over the years. I won’t dispute that, but it doesn’t change the fact that the three old pros held my interest more than their counterparts. And maybe that’s why the film never rises past the level of “perfectly fine” and never pushed me into the sense that I was watching a great—or even near great—movie. Should you go? That probably depends on how you feel about the cast and the thriller genre. You could certainly find much worse ways to spend your time at the movies, but I can’t get that enthused about The Debt to truly recommend it. Rated R for some violence and language.