“The Debt” is one of those “problem” movies about which you hear ill tidings. It was supposed to be released in 2010 and purportedly was one of the serious, somber-toned films expected to vie for Oscar nominations. But then its release was delayed. And then, it was delayed again.
Sometimes these sorts of films are never heard from again until finally being pushed out onto video without fanfare. In the case of “The Debt,” it’s being dumped into theaters at the end of the summer, which is only a slightly kinder fate.
Usually when a movie is handled this way, it’s a clear indication the studio thinks the movie has serious problems. Perhaps reshoots were ordered or a massive re-editing. In any case, a pushed-back release is never a good sign.
So I was pleasantly surprised to encounter a gripping, well-told drama with splendid acting by some seasoned performers as well as younger thespians playing the same characters 30 years earlier.
It’s the tale of a trio of Israeli Mossad agents sent in 1965 to track down and arrest a Nazi doctor who committed unspeakable atrocities during the war. Complications arise, the mission is compromised and decades later they’re still dealing with the consequences of their actions.
No, “The Debt” is not worthy of any Oscar talk, and the last third or so wades into a tar pit of melodrama which bogs down the narrative somewhat. But the film never failed to engage me, and I am the better for having seen it.
The story opens with young Rachel (Jessica Chastain), an untried interpreter-turned-agent. She is guarding a man tied up and gagged in a dingy apartment. From the kitchen, she hears a noise and returns to find the prisoner gone. He attacks her from the shadows, tears her cheek open with a sharp object, and, after a struggle, escapes and flees into the night.
Despite her wounds, Rachel staggers to the window and manages to shoot the man dead with her pistol.
But is this really the whole story? Director John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) and a trio of screenwriters — Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan — are just winding up. The tale grows deeper, and more twisted, in a labyrinth of emotions and morality conflicts.
We soon meet Rachel’s older self in the 1990s, played by Helen Mirren. With the twisted scar on her face and disquieting mien, she’s become a hardened woman not to be trifled with.
We also learn that Rachel eventually married, and then divorced, the leader of her team, Stefan, played by Marton Csokas in 1965 and Tom Wilkinson later in life. Stefan was a supremely ambitious young agent who pursued Rachel more out of arrogance than affection and has become a powerful figure in Israeli government.
The coupling of Rachel and Stefan is perplexing because from their first meeting, it’s apparent that Rachel is powerfully drawn to David (Sam Worthington), the third member of their team. Whereas Stefan is boastful and domineering, David is quiet and reticent in displaying his feelings.
Stefan wants to capture Vogel, the so-called Surgeon of Birkinauw, because it was be a major feather in his cap career-wise. David, though, is motivated by a burning desire to capture those who persecuted Jews and see them punished.
Ciarán Hinds plays the older David, long missing from the scene and suddenly reappearing with an request that could turn all their lives upside down.
Vogel is played by Jesper Christensen in a mesmerizing performance that’s a mix of loathsomeness and charm. Rachel first sees him by posing as a patient with a fertility problem, and the doctor seems genuinely kind and concerned for her (fake) dilemma. But then when things go awry with the plan to smuggle him out of East Berlin, he slowly reveals the blackest of hearts to the trio holding him. With his taunts and his needling questions, Vogel in many ways becomes the captor of the agents, rather than the other way around.
The romantic entanglements of the three main characters detracts from, rather than adds to, the story, in my opinion. The scenes where Stefan makes his moves on Rachel, as David quietly seethes, have an obligatory feel to them.
Still, “The Debt” is a well-made film, featuring two trios of fine actors and a seventh memorably playing their quarry. This is a worthy movie, despite how it’s being treated.