Screen Rant's Ben Kendrick reviews The Debt
At first glance, The Debt might look like a run of the mill espionage drama - with plenty of big name stars putting on Israeli and German accents to sell a narrative about a group of secret agents thirty years after the events that made them national icons. In fact, the mere presence of go-to action guy Sam Worthington would seem to indicate that The Debt offers up more bang than brains.
In the hands of many other directors, The Debt - which is a remake of an Israeli film of the same name (from Assaf Bernstein) - could have easily gone the route of similar espionage movies. However, John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) is ultimately much less concerned with the tense spy-mission set-up, and instead spends the majority of the film playing out a tense character drama. But does the substance over style approach deliver an entertaining and memorable time at the movies?
Fortunately, the answer is yes. Not only does Madden succeed in committing an interesting character drama to film, the director also finds a compelling way to pull tension out of even the most uneventful moments in the script. As a result, in a time when so many films set-aside story and character in favor of CGI and big explosions, it's an especially commendable accomplishment when a director can engage an audience with nothing more than the basics of artistic expression - solid performances and captivating (as well as real) characters, all grounded in an intriguing narrative journey.
For anyone unfamiliar with The Debt, the basic plot follows three Mossad agents who engaged in a top secret mission to abduct German war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), in order to bring him to Israel for public trial. The plot jumps back and forth 30 years between the 1967 mission and the 1997 aftermath of the event, where new information regarding the mission comes to light, forcing the agents - Rachel (Helen Mirren/Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Tom Wilkinson/Marton Csokas), and David (Ciaran Hinds/Sam Worthington) - back into each other's lives to make sense of their time in East Berlin - as well as what the revelation could mean for their respective futures.
The overarching story is one of the stronger elements of the movie (despite a few overly-sentimental moments) and successfully manages to carry the characters from the interesting period piece drama to the aftermath and subsequent reflection. The portion of the story that takes place in 1967 East Berlin is tense, and even without the modern narrative arc, the story of the Mossad operatives' mission would be exciting and interesting on its own. However, the modern scenes add a delicious layer of depth and complexity, grounded in hind-sight regret and reflection, that bring everyone full-circle, even after 30 years.
That said, the narrative would be nothing without the bevy of captivating performances in the film. Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciaran Hinds all live-up to their usual acclaim - successfully depicting a fractured group of individuals that have been weighed-down by their shared experience and no longer know how to relate to (much less care for) one another after many years. However, the most captivating moments of the film belong to their younger counterparts, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington, respectively. This is hardly a knock against the older generation, but as mentioned, the 1967 time period storyline offers a number of chilling and complicated character moments that are delivered with powerful subtlety.
A lot is required of Chastain in particular, who not only has difficult moments with both members of her team, but shares a lot of tense screen time with the film's "villain," Dieter Vogel. Jesper Christensen is excellent as Vogel, capturing the genuine complexity of a Nazi "monster" living a normal life in post-World War II Germany. In one breath, Christensen can seamlessly transition from hateful anti-Semitic rhetoric to a concerned and almost relatable everyman.
It's also worth noting that Sam Worthington, who is often (and for good reason) criticized for wooden action roles, offers a very subtle but competent performance as the younger David. Despite the presence of his usual head-down intensity, the actor manages to communicate a lot of layers in The Debt - often without having to even say a word.
Despite The Debt's complexity - which deals with very real situations and truths - a few of the overarching story beats are overtly mechanical, serving to somewhat force-fuel a few end results and play against how certain characters might actually have handled a given situation. As a result, there are a few scenes that are hard to accept, given the fact that we're talking about Mossad operatives. The story attempts to remedy these challenging suspensions of disbelief by hinging heavily on the assertion that we're all human - no matter how monstrous or highly trained - and, while that idea certainly makes the characters real people - it doesn't always rectify their less believable actions.
In the end, there are a couple of intended surprises and shocks that most movie regulars will probably see coming - though, ultimately, the lack of surprise doesn't detract from how these moments affect the characters, as well as play to the overarching story. That said, aside from these few predictable (or mechanical) story beats, it's hard not to enjoy (and think about) The Debt. It may not be the movie marketed in the trailers, but in this case, that's actually a compliment.
If you’re still on the fence about The Debt, check out the trailer:
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The Debt is now playing in theaters.