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Movie Review: ‘The Debt’

August 31, 2011


At long last, we have a reprieve from all that dumbed down summer nonsense. The Debt is a true cinematic rarity these days. It’s smart adult fare for people who prefer not to lose IQ points every time they go to the cinema. Blockbusters have become synonymous with summer, but you can only see so many of them before you crave something a little more substantive. I didn’t realize how starving I was until I left the theater after my screening of The Debt feeling really, truly satisfied.  Plus, I won’t need a manicure for quite some time, because I chewed all my nails down to little nubs. I can’t remember the last time I experienced so much anxiety during a movie.

I’ll skirt around the finer points of the plot the best I can to avoid spoilers. The Debt takes place in 1997, and Rachel (Helen Mirren) is being honored at a book launch in Tel Aviv, thanks to some work she did while a Mossad secret agent in East Berlin in 1965. A garish scar across her face signals that Rachel suffered physically in her past, but it becomes quickly apparent that she bears plenty of emotional scars as well. Rachel has a sad, haunted quality about her, and we see her story unfold in flashbacks.

In 1965, young Rachel (Jessica Chastain) plots with fellow agents David (Sam Worthington) and Stefan (Marton Csokas) to kidnap a Nazi war criminal (dubbed “the Surgeon of Birkenau”) so that he may be brought to trial in Israel. Since the man is practicing as a gynecologist in Berlin, it falls upon Rachel’s shoulders to go undercover as a patient having infertility issues.  Though mishaps occur, they succeed in kidnapping the man, but must kill him before he is brought to trial. End of story. Trouble is, a man boasting the same identity has surfaced in the Ukraine in 1997, mere days before Rachel is to be honored.  This news shatters the lives of the three agents, who clearly know what really happened in Berlin. Long dormant secrets come to life, and the past threatens to destroy their futures.  Tom Wilkinson plays the older Stefan, and Cirian Hinds is David.

The Debt deftly weaves together mystery, espionage, suspense, thriller and tragedy into a perfect storm of storytelling. Since the agents spent so much time together cooped up in a safe house, tensions and feelings escalated between the two male agents and Rachel. Thus the morsel of a love story feels genuine and organic, not added as an afterthought like so many films today. Director John Madden teases the tension as it builds to suffocating levels. I know that men can never really know how vulnerable women feel at the gynecologist, but I think this movie will give you an idea. To place Rachel in that position as a means to an end is harrowing to watch. If I could have climbed onto the ceiling I would have. It’s not graphic at all; it’s just the implication that she is so helpless there while being examined by a man she knows is a cold-blooded killer and torturer that made me squeamish. It’s extremely effective, and it was a stroke of genius. Later, when the roles are reversed, and Rachel becomes one of the doctor’s caretakers, that palpable tension returns when she shaves his face with a straight razor. Just one slip…

The acting is exceptional, though Chastain is a standout.  Rachel is a complicated and multi-faceted character. Chastain helps us understand exactly how and why the older Rachel is so sad and haunted. We see what she sacrificed for her country, and for justice.  She sets it up perfectly, and hands off the baton to Mirren, who plays Rachel as a woman consumed by grief, regret, and guilt. This brings up the question, if Rachel knew how everything was going to affect her life, would she still have become an agent?

The Debt is a remake of a 2007 film from Israel entitled Ha-Hov, which was directed and co-written by Assaf Bernstein. This version was written by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass), Jane Goldman (X-Men First Class), and Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare at Goats).  It’s a thrilling little potboiler, and I have no doubt it will make it into my year-end top ten.-Shannon

Rating 4.5/5

The Debt is rated R. 114 minutes. Directed by John Madden. Written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan (screenplay); Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum (Ha-Hov movie). Starring Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Cirian Hinds, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Jesper Christensen


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