“The reason four soldiers could walk a thousand Jews to the gas chambers was because your people only thought about themselves. No one would step forward, make a sacrifice, even when we took your children. All you think about are yourselves,” Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), an evil Nazi doctor, says to Rachel (Jessica Chastain), a Mossad agent in 1966. That statement underpins the thematic through-line of John Madden’s espionage thriller, The Debt. Or at least, it’s meant to. Unfortunately, the themes get lost in the time-shifting and muddled in the narrative twists. There’s meant to be a message of redemption here, but it’s buried in an espionage thriller that takes too long to lift off and then, once it does, loses its way.
It doesn’t make The Debt a bad movie; there’s a modest mystery at the heart of the film, some strong performances, and it plays with some interesting ideas, particularly those about justice and process, even if it does abandon them in the third act.
The Debt opens in 1997; Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) is at the book launch of her daughter, who has written a non-fiction account of the experiences of Singer and two other Mossad agents, Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington), in 1966. What we see in the opening 10 minutes of the film is David throwing himself in front of an 18-wheeler on the way to the book launch in 1997, and 30 years previously, Singer shooting and killing the Dieter Vogel as he attempts to escape the apartment he’s being held in, the event that forms the basis of the book written in 1997.
The Debt then movies back into 1966 and tracks the events leading up to the escape and shooting of the Dieter Vogel, the romantic entanglements between Rachel, Stephan, and David, and what happened then that provoked David to take his own life in 1997. That’s the major dramatic problem with The Debt, however. We know how the events in 1966 will unfold — or at least we think we do — and we spend the first two slow-paced acts of The Debt waiting for it to get there. It’s a curious stretch, as we’re led to believe that the moral conflict is between the easy choice of killing Vogel immediately or the harder, more principled choice to sneak him back to Israel and put him on trial for war crimes. However, the proper historical context is never put in place for this conflict, nor is the Vogel character developed well enough to create ample friction.
It turns out, however, that that’s not what’s at play, anyway, and by the time the action moves back to 1997 in the third act, the first two acts are rendered largely moot, both from the standpoint of the story and that of the characters, who are too grim and detached in the 60’s version to elicit much investment. Chastain invites a modicum of sympathy, but Worthington is his typical wooden self, while Csokas vacillates between two emotions: Stoic and hot-tempered. There is also some terribly distracting miscasting: Tom Wilkinson plays the 1997 version of Marton Csokas while Ciarán Hinds plays the 1997 version of Sam Worthington, but physically, the roles should be reversed, and it makes trying to keep track of who is who in 1997 almost impossible.
However, The Debt does find traction with Mirren in the third act, propelling the plot forward so quickly that it becomes difficult to open the door before it slams into it. The door here is the Hollywood influence; The Debt is a remake of an Israeli film, and with three screenwriters — including Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) and Peter Straughan (Men Who Stare at Goats) — essentially rewriting someone else’s story, you can almost feel the threads of the original film split apart. The poorly developed themes about Jewish history and identity are abandoned, and the message of redemption gets buried under the Hollywood hoo-ra. Neither is Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) a director capable of pulling the intangibles to the surface. He’s more interested in mood than he is theme, and it costs The Debt some much needed resonance.
Nevertheless, in a Hollywood marketplace that panders to the 18-24 year olds, The Debt shouldn’t be completely dismissed. It’s modest adult entertainment that boasts the talents of Mirren and Chastain, and when the alternative is another superhero origins story or The Great American Orgy, The Debt fares quite well by comparison.