Kernel Rating (out of 5):
Length: 114 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Age Appropriate for: 15+. It is R, but I think most teens, if mature, should be able to understand and appreciate the concept of a secret’s undeniable harm, as well as the horrors of the Holocaust. There is cursing, two implied sex scenes, drinking, smoking and some violence, including a suicide by stepping into traffic and some stabbing used in hand-to-hand combat.
‘The Debt’ falls victim to this summer’s dramatic malady: Strong performances mired in somewhat meh films. It happened to ‘The Devil’s Double’ and ‘The Whistleblower,’ and devastating work from Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington unfortunately can’t keep ‘The Debt’ from joining their ranks.
By Roxana Hadadi
What happened to August, America? Audiences went in droves to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” the first week of August, and then … nothing. No one saw “Fright Night,” even though it was really good, and no one saw “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” even though that was surprisingly good, too. More people have been seeing “The Help,” which is good for author Kathryn Stockett, but now that it’s the last day of August, what are the chances anyone will make a concerted effort to go see “The Debt,” the final film released this month?
Given the tendencies of movie audiences so far during the latter part of the summer, “The Debt” may go entirely unnoticed, much like other performance-driven dramas did — “The Devil’s Double,” “The Whistleblower.” Both those films were anchored by strong actors: the former by Dominic Cooper as a charismatic inferno, playing both Saddam Hussein’s son Uday and his body double Latif, and the latter with Rachel Weisz as a dedicated, tormented United Nations peacekeeper — and “The Debt,” based on the 2007 Israeli movie “HaHov, HaChov,” is no different. Stars Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Ciarán Hinds deliver exceptional performances, but the film’s end oozes a fakeness that their acting can’t shake.
“The Debt” focuses on the youth and older years of three Israeli special agents who sneak into Germany in the ‘60s to snatch “the surgeon of Birkenau,” a character loosely based on the Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele, who committed horrible experiments on Jewish prisoners in the Auschwitz death camp. In the film, the character is named Dr. Dieter Vogel and has been hiding in East Berlin after World War II under the alias “Dr. Bernhardt”; in real life, Mengele escaped Auschwitz after WWII and stayed in South America until he drowned after having a stroke while swimming. Anyway, so Mossad — Israeli’s national intelligence agency — sends a group of young operatives to capture Vogel and bring him to Israel to stand trial, a task that seems exceptionally hard and, as the film progresses, becomes nearly impossible.
We know from the beginning that agents Stephan (portrayed in youth by Marton Csokas and later by Tom Wilkinson), David (Worthington and Hinds) and Rachel (Chastain and Mirren) were successful in their quest: Stephan’s and Rachel’s daughter Sarah (Romi Aboulafia), a journalist, writes a book in 1997 about their mission, furthering their statuses as national heroes. But things start unraveling rapidly, pushing the divorced Stephan and Rachel together after years of resentment: First David, after decades away from Israel, returns to the country. Then a journalist in Ukraine starts investigating Vogel’s past. With various pieces of their story showing cracks, Rachel rethinks what happened to them in East Germany — giving us that story in flashback form — and works in the present to maintain the life she’s created for herself 30 years later.
The majority of the plot is set in East Germany’s Soviet-controlled Berlin in 1965, when Rachel arrives to aid Stephan and David in their mission of capturing Vogel, now working as a gynecologist. Forced to share an apartment with them and masquerade as David’s wife, Rachel soon becomes caught between the two men: Stephan, the leader of the mission, dizzyingly handsome and ambitious, and David, thoroughly orphaned after the Holocaust, tortured by the memories of what happened to his family and withdrawn and focused as a result. Each of them is appealing in their own way, and soon a love triangle of sorts develops — one that will be excruciatingly important as they attempt to grab Vogel and as their plans, of course, go awry.
“The Debt” is built primarily around Mirren and Chastain, and it’s a solid choice from director John Madden (whose last film, 2008’s “Killshot,” was also a thriller). The two women look alike — always a plus when playing the same person, obviously — but their partnership is more effective because each actress truly gets her character, and how she progresses from one to the other. As the 25-year-old Rachel, a translator turned agent, Chastain drops the ethereal qualities she brought to “The Tree of Life” for a more grounded, edgier performance. She wavers between the two men in her life but her pain and desperation when the mission turns bad are palpable, especially during some excellently edited scenes that show the three turning against each other, jumping from moments in the increasingly filthy kitchen to the plunking piano in their living room to their Krav Maga practice sessions, loaded with passive aggression and meaning. When Rachel grows up, though, Mirren effectively squashes her doubt and naiveté, only allowing traces of that former personality to seep through at the most opportune moments. The woman may be a senior citizen, but she’s a gritty wonder.
Worthington and Hinds have the same sort of connection; both have a haunted, lost look about them, the kind of mania that comes with being obsessed with something you can’t have. In their trio, only Stephan is the missing link: Csokas is endearingly smarmy as the young agent looking to move up the ranks, but later in life, Wilkinson doesn’t elicit the same kind of work-centered anxiety. He’s just kind of there, filling a role and not really doing anything with it. Instead, it’s Jesper Christensen as Vogel who seems to pick up the slack: He’s a manipulative, deceptive bastard, and his uncanny ability to read every character’s motivation builds most of the film’s tension.
Alas, the film’s end feels like a cheap Band-Aid to all the stress depicted in the characters’ earlier years. It’s an inconceivable yawn of a conclusion that makes very little logical sense but tries to further the film’s idea that nothing can ever be forgotten — and for most of “The Debt,” that’s true. If only there were a better way to tie up its loose ends, the film would have been unforgettable for its performances alone. Instead, like “The Devil’s Double” and “The Whistleblower,” “The Debt” presents a shrug-worthy final act that nearly overshadows its strong performances. Just nearly.