From director John Madden comes the espionage thriller The Debt, a superbly acted tale of three Mossad agents who are assigned to capture a Nazi war criminal responsible for torturing and murdering thousands of Jews during the war. Engaging and powerful, The Debt is Madden's best movie since Shakespeare in Love, but the film's lack of a cohesive theme keeps it from greatness.
The Debt stars Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson as Rachel Singer and Stephan Gold, and Jessica Chastain and Marton Csokas as their younger counterparts. Sam Worthington also stars as their colleague, and Jesper Christensen plays a crucial supporting character.
Set in two time periods, The Debt works thanks to convincing performances from its stars and a dramatic and tense story that keeps the audience engaged from minute one. The movie is a thriller, but to call it suspenseful wouldn't be quite right; it exists to tell a gripping story, but not necessarily be gripping itself.
The movie has many layers. On one level, it is a drama about people regretting actions conducted in the past. On another, it's a spy film, depicting a mission that falls apart at the seams. And in its most powerful moments, it is a very personal film, about characters driven to the edge of madness by their mission and the three-way triangle that simultaneously brings the three protagonists together and drives them apart.
Every actor in the movie is excellent, but it's Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain who steal the show. Chastain, who gets the most screen time, delivers an impressively raw and emotional performance that straddles her character's strength and weaknesses especially well. Between The Debt and The Tree of Life, Chastain will forever remember 2011 as the year that made her a star.
It would be easy to dismiss Mirren's performance as yet another great one from the actress, but she shouldn't be overlooked. Her role could have been a secondary one - after all, she's playing someone who serves as a bookend for extended flashback scenes - and yet she plays it with brilliant nuance.
Christensen also deserves credit for his small but instrumental role as Doktor Bernhardt, who, even as a hostage works to manipulate his captors at every turn. Every line of dialogue he brings to life sizzles with wicked intensity.
As good as The Debt is, it struggles to express its intended purpose. It's clear that Madden was trying to tap into an overarching theme, but I'm still not sure what that theme is. The climax almost seems like an afterthought, something tacked onto the end to provide closure for dumb American audiences rather than offer something more complex and gray. It convolutes the theme, even twisting it beyond recognition.
Furthermore, I'm not exactly sure what the title refers to. What is "the debt"? I have no clue.
The Debt is a worthwhile espionage thriller, one of the better movies of the year, and yet its lack of a coherent theme - and a questionable ending - keep it from ascending into the upper echelon of the genre. Still, with excellent performances and an emotionally engaging story, it is one of the few truly good movies of the summer.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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