All beautiful form and little substance.
The only thing wrong with The Debt is what I would call the Hindenburg Effect. While it is an admittedly stylish, intriguing and at times exciting journey, it collapses in flames at the end.
This is a glorious mess of a film for a whole host of reasons. To begin with, the story begins promisingly enough with three Mossad agents trying to capture and bring to justice an infamous Nazi war criminal in East Berlin in 1965. Known as the “Butcher of Birkenau” (played by Jesper Christensen to malevolent, slimy perfection), a Dr. Mengele clone, events quickly spiral out of control as things go horribly wrong. The Debt then fast forwards to 1997 where the same three agents are forced to confront the dark consequences of their perfidy.
In a sense, The Debt resembles Sarah’s Key in that both films lose considerable steam as they time travel to future events. Neither is able to sustain its initial momentum, both devolving into little more than daytime soap opera caricatures.
With Debt, our three aging agents have evolved into a sad group of unhappy mopes as the consequences of their web of lies come crashing down on them. Given that they are played by the mega-talented trio of Helen Mirren,Tom Wilkinson and Ciran Hinds, the already convoluted ending is all the more disappointing.
As noted above, The Debt is at its best when the camera focuses on the agents’ younger alter egos in the persons of Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, and Marton Csokas. Of particular note is Ms. Chastain, who all but steals this film in much the fashion as she did in this year’s justifiably acclaimed The Help.
Playing Rachael Singer, a dedicated but emotionally fragile undercover operative, she is forced to confront the personification of human evil while simultaneously wrestling with the sexually charged atmosphere involving her two undercover colleagues. In the process, Ms. Chastain creates an unforgettable character whose political dedication will leave her emotionally scarred, literally and figuratively, as she ages into Ms. Mirren.
Unfortunately, Ms. Chastain’s co-stars are left, for lack of a better analogy, “pissing in the wind.” As memorable as Sam Worthington was in Avatar, here he is little more than an angst-ridden Nazi hunter destined to self destruct as a result of fateful decisions that fatally conflict with his inner sense of decency and honor. And both Mr. Csokas and Mr. Wilkinson fare little better jointly playing the leader of our tragic trio (Stephen Gold). Truth is a malleable commodity to him, and he sets into motion malignant forces that haunt all three in much the same fashion as the infamous painting did to the lamentable Dorian Grey.
The bottom line is that even an accomplished director like John Madden [Shakespeare In Love (1998)] couldn’t use his considerable talents to wring a cohesive drama out of this script by a quartet of writers. (Four writers—-hmmm–how can that ever go wrong!) Regardless, I am again reminded of the classic comment made years ago by a forgotten pundit when he caustically dismissed a film with the observation that “you couldn’t help but feel that somewhere a great movie is lying on the cutting room floor.” Amen.