The Debt

Movie Information

The Story: An exploration of the difference between the official version of the story of the three Mossad agents tracking down a Nazi in 1966 and what really happened. The Lowdown: Well cast and solidly made, The Debt is a hard film to fault on any specific grounds, but it's equally hard to get as excited about it -- a definite downside for a thriller.
Genre: Thriller
Director: John Madden (Proof)
Starring: Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Martin Csokas, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds
Rated: R

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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2 thoughts on “The Debt

  1. Tom J.

    While I agree that “The Debt” is a “good” rather than “great” film, I think it does take quite a few risks:

    1. A facially-scarred Helen Mirren (Which, as you correctly point out, is noticeably absent from the film poster). Who really wants to see one of the most ageless women in Hollywood sporting a hideous facial deformity? (Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose in “The Hours” notwithstanding)

    2. It’s a movie about NAZIS – not exactly the type of fun, entertaining or cheery film that audiences flock to (“Inglourious Basterds” got away with it by injecting tons of black humor.)

    3. That gynecological exam scene. I’m a MAN and that scene made me queasy.

    4. The resolution of the above scene – definitely did not see THAT one coming.

    5. Allowing the “heroes” of the film to be…not entirely heroic or even likeable at times. And, allowing the Nazi some degree of humanity. I think this is fairly significant since most films seem so terrified of alienating audiences by allowing the protagonists to have complexity or even unlikeable traits that they rely on unrealistic (but crowd-pleasing) black-and-white melodrama in which the heroes are unshakably good (even saintly) and the villains are cartoonishly evil.

  2. Steves

    When the film started, I noticed that it said it was based on another movie. We saw part of the film, but left when it got more violent than my wife tolerates.

    Later that day, I happened to find that the original film version (2007, hebrew and german dialogue with english subtitles) was available for streaming on our cable provider (Charter) as a free movie.

    We watched this version in its entirety. It wasn’t a violent film (with the exception of one brief episode), and had a very different feel to it (I would say elegiac).

    I would recommend all who see the current version consider also viewing the original (if they can access it online or find a DVD) for comparison.

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