There are a lot of figurative scars defining The Debt, an action-heavy drama that takes place largely in East Berlin in 1966 and Tel Aviv in 1997. The story of three Mossad agents on a mission to bring an ex-Nazi to justice, the movie is suffused with scars from the Holocaust, from the divide of East and West Germany, from the nascent and already struggling Israeli state, and more obliquely, the victims of the fictional ex-Nazi doctor called "The Surgeon of Birkenau." There's also one very literal scar on the face of Rachel, played by Jessica Chastain in the 60s scenes and Helen Mirren in the 90s; in the first 10 minutes of The Debt we see how Rachel got the ugly scar, then spend the rest of the film unraveling what we saw and how it affects the lives of everyone involved.
Twisty, maybe a little overly complicated but also undeniably compelling, The Debt is at its essence a spy story, but poised at a unique point in history that gives it real poignance. Our three Mossad agents-- Rachel is joined on the East Berlin mission by ambitious Stephan (Marton Csokas) and quietly determined David (Sam Worthington)-- experience the same romantic entanglements and moments of doubt that any three young people on a mission might, but it's those unspoken, unseen scars that drive them. Each of them survived the Holocaust as children and all lost family, and in joining a Mossad mission to hunt down and bring to trial Dr. Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), they are exacting a state-sanctioned revenge that's also deeply personal.
We learn in an early flashback that the Berlin mission ended with Vogel escaping, injuring Rachel (and scarring her face), only to be shot in the back by Rachel at the last minute. In 1997 the daughter that Rachel and Stephan (played as an older man by Tom Wilkinson) had together has written a book about their experiences, and it's clear that both of them have become national heroes as a result of their story. Then there's David (played by Ciaran Hinds), who is on his way to the book party when, in front of Stephan, he launches himself in front of a speeding truck. It will be nearly the end of the movie before we know why.
The script, adapted by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (the team behind Kick-Ass), along with Peter Straughn, from a 2007 Israeli film, skitters between the 60s and the 90s to work up a good sense of mystery. Then it plunges us claustrophobically into the East Berlin mission, where Rachel and David-- total strangers to each other-- must pretend to be married, and Rachel visits Vogel's gynecology office under the guise of being a patient. We've see many female spies use their feminine wiles to get close to the enemy, but with her feet in the stirrups and Vogel's hand on her cervix, Rachel is going to extraordinary lengths, and director John Madden brings us into both her discomfort and steely resolve to get the job done. When the plan goes awry and Vogel winds up a prisoner in the agents' apartment, he uses this intimate access to get under her skin more figuratively, and The Debt's frank exploration of Rachel's femininity as both a weapon and a liability becomes one of its more compelling underlying themes.
Eventually what's happening on the surface becomes a little less interesting-- a love triangle is formed, secret alliances are revealed, and in 1997, Mirren's Rachel goes on one last mission that will either unearth or bury the biggest secret of all. In one way it's all standard spy movie stuff, but it's everything roiling under the surface that keeps The Debt so intriguing-- David's tightly-wound insistence on getting the job done, the weight of secrets on Rachel's face in both eras, the crackling, unspoken tension in each agent's strained conversation with their Nazi quarry. Worthington, a constantly underestimated actor, is tense and slightly menacing even when David is consumed by love, and Csokas's cocky Stephan morphs fascinatingly into Wilkinson's version, a politician who automatically owns the room even confined to a wheelchair. Hinds isn't even a close match for Worthington physically-- he actually looks more like Csokas, which is confusing-- but he matches the intensity of Worthington's performance even in his few short scenes.
With its complicated, time-jumping plot and occasional moments of excellently done tension, The Debt is a movie that's worth sinking into, with Madden and his extraordinary actors drawing the audience into the film's coziness cut with paranoia. It's the rare kind of thriller that's even more interesting below the surface than the high-stakes plot that drives it.
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