The Debt: Keep On Playing Those Spy Games

by Ethan Alter August 31, 2011 6:00 am
<i>The Debt</i>: Keep On Playing Those Spy Games

The Debt has one of the worst endings to an otherwise well-crafted thriller in recent memory. It's not just that the final 10-15 minutes are full of illogical contrivances (though they are) -- it's that they fundamentally contradict the movie's intended message. As star Helen Mirren informs us in a voiceover that precedes the closing credits, our takeaway is supposed to be that lies -- even the well-intentioned variety -- will inevitably be uncovered and the guilty may not always be brought to justice. But while she's soberly intoning those words, the events occurring onscreen tell a very different story, one that tries to put a positive, crowd-pleasing spin on what's otherwise a darker, more emotionally complex story. (Don't worry -- as much as I'd like to prepare you for the silliness of the ending, I'll restrain myself from giving it all away.)

But let's back up for a moment. Based on the award-winning 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov, The Debt jumps back and forth between the '60s and the '90s to tell the story of a top-secret Mossad (that would be the Israeli secret service, for those of you that haven't caught up with Steven Spielberg's Munich) operation and its aftermath. In 1965, a freshman operative named Rachel Singer (current It Girl Jessica Chastain) is dispatched to East Germany, where she's embedded with two other undercover agents, shy, retiring David Peretz (Sam Worthington) and boisterous, charismatic Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas). Their mission is to find and retrieve an elusive former Nazi, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), better known -- and widely feared -- by his nickname, the Surgeon of Birkenau. Having located him practicing gynecology at a small East Berlin clinic, they design and carry out a plan to kidnap him and spirit his drugged body out of the country to face a tribunal (and an almost certain death sentence) in Israel. But just as they're about to hop the train that will take them through enemy lines, the operation goes pear-shaped and they're forced to hole up in a safe house with their prisoner, who proves quite adept at playing mind games with the already on-edge agents. Inevitably, this ticking time bomb of a situation explodes and Rachel, David and Stephan strike a bargain that will change the course of their lives and, so they tell themselves, preserve the soul of their young country.

Meanwhile, in 1997, an older Rachel (Mirren) is still living with the consequences of her time in East Berlin, consequences that include an unhappy marriage to (and speedy divorce from) Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) -- now a powerful government official -- as well as a grown daughter that they share. The past literally comes back to haunt her in the form of David (Ciarán Hinds), who left Israel for good shortly after their return, unable to cope with the deal they made and his deep feelings for Rachel, which she longs to reciprocate, but can't find the courage. The only reason he's back is because he's stumbled upon some unwelcome Vogel-related news that will force her back into the field to try and close a door left open three decades ago.

With its mixture of political intrigue, personal drama and low-key spy games (there are no Jason Bourne-style ass-kickings here, though Chastain and Worthington do occasionally show off some killer krav maga moves) , The Debt plays like John Le Carré-lite, particularly in the '60s sequences, which are the strongest passages of the movie. In fact, if the producers hadn't felt compelled to shell out for Mirren, the '90s material could have been severely trimmed back and possibly even jettisoned entirely. Not that the Oscar-winning star and her fellow aged co-stars deliver bad performances, mind you; it's that they have far less interesting material to play. In this particular espionage yarn, the mission itself proves far more compelling than the ramifications.

The '60s scenes also stand out because they give viewers another chance to marvel at the sheer versatility of Jessica Chastain. The 30-year-old actress has been popping up everywhere this year, starting with The Tree of Life and The Help this past summer. And after The Debt, she's got three more movies on deck, including Take Shelter, Texas Killing Fields and Coriolanus. Oftentimes, appearing in that many movies released that closely together can hurt rather than help a young actor's career (remember what happened to Jude Law?), but what's remarkable about Chastain's run so far is how different each performance is from the other. She was an ethereal Earth Mother in Tree of Life, a scene-stealing Southern belle in The Help and a working-class homemaker in the yet-to-open Take Shelter (more on that terrific film later this month). In The Debt, she's a freakin' movie star, one who commands the screen from the instant she enters the frame. She also forces the actors around her to elevate their game, particularly Worthington, who finally demonstrates the dramatic chops that have been missing from his work in blockbusters like Avatar and Clash of the Titans. Not only do you believe that Chastain would age into Mirren within the reality of the film, but she also seems poised to follow Mirren's career path from young ingénue to revered veteran actress in the real world as well.

Chastain and her co-stars provide the crackle that's lacking in John Madden's serviceable, but largely uninspired direction. It's a shame that the script -- which is credited to X-Men: First Class creative team Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, as well as Peter Straughn, who wrote the upcoming film version of Le Carré's seminal spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy -- didn't find its way into the hands of a filmmaker with a stronger track record with this kind of material, someone like Steven Soderbergh or The Lives of Others' Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. But audiences will enjoy the plot's various twists and turns anyway, at least until they hit that howler of an ending, at which point the air goes out of the movie like a leaky balloon. Here's my advice: set your iPhone to alert you (on vibrate please!) when the movie reaches the 100-minute mark and then exit the theater as swiftly as possible. You'll come away with a far better resolution than the movie ends up offering.

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