As a time-spanning espionage flick, The Debt keeps you on the edge of your seat. With a brilliant cast and lots of hair-raising moments, this cool, dark thriller is just what you need as this unbearably hot summer comes to an end.
Our story begins in 1997 in a Tel Aviv ballroom, where Rachel (Helen Mirren) prepares to read an excerpt from her daughter’s book. As the story comes to life, we see that Rachel is the heroine of the story, and that it is a biographical tale from her life. We see a young Rachel (Jessica Chastain) in 1965 as she places three pots under leaks in her roof, passing a bound and apparently unconscious man in the process. As she walks back to the kitchen, she notices that she can only hear two of the pots as the water drips into them. She goes to check on the prisoner to find the third pot overturned and that the man has vanished. A desperate struggle ensues, the man is shot, and we end up back in the ballroom as the crowd applauds our 1997 Rachel.
The Debt continues on this way, in it’s first act giving us information that we aren’t quite sure what to do with just yet. The second act primarily takes place back in 1965-66, slowly unveiling all the secret meanings and answers to our questions about what happened. Rachel and her team members Stefen (Tom Wilkinson, Marton Csokas) and David (Ciarán Hinds, Sam Worthington) were secret agents for the Israeli Mossad in the 1960’s. They were charged with finding and kidnapping Nazi Dieter Vogel, “the Surgeon of Birkenau,” from where he’s hiding in East Berlin and bring him to justice in Israel. This proves to be quite a feat, requiring spy gadgets, tense undercover moments, lots of fantastically performed hand-to-hand combat, and a love triangle to boot.
Most of the second act takes place in a dingy, rundown apartment, but cinematographer Ben Davis (working with Jim Clay’s production design) keeps these scenes visually arresting and fresh. The rest of the movie is filmed on location in Tel Aviv, the U.K., and Budapest, giving us an extremely immersive backdrop for all the thrills and action.
Jesper Christensen disturbingly humanizes the monster Vogel, first as a seemingly caring gynecologist treating Rachel in her undercover guise (some of the most nail-bitingly tense moments in the film), then as a master manipulator, turning his captors against each other and themselves. Director John Madden grasps the power of small, physical acts: Vogel spitting food in Stephan’s face, the acutely withdrawn David combing Rachel’s hair. These small things are what ring true with the audience.
The movie loses a little traction when it returns to 1997, as a conflicted Rachel, long retired, travels to the Ukraine on a final mission. While Mirren is always wonderful to watch in action, these scenes lack the psychological depth and plot plausibility of the earlier ones. I believe this is mostly due to a quick attempt to tie all the loose ends together on the screenwriters’ end. Nonetheless, The Debt’s strengths linger: its nuanced performances, crisp editing, strong score and solid suspense. This is one that you will want to see again and again, and is worth a trip to the theater.
I give The Debt 4 “Dreaded Stirrups” out of 5.