THE DEBT, 2011
Stars: Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Tom Wilkinson, Jessica Chastain, Ciarán Hinds, Marton Csokas, Jesper Christensen
In 1965, Mossad agent Rachel Singer (Mirren) was part of a secret mission to capture and bring to trial the Surgeon of Birkenau, a Nazi war criminal. In her present-day life, when a man claiming to be the killer surfaces in Ukraine, Singer travels to Eastern Europe to seek out the trut
It's not a surprise to say Hollywood, and audiences in general, love a good revenge thriller. Watching a hero blow things up and kill villains is fun, and a bad guy who has it coming is even more fun. It absolves of moral responsibility for wishing harm on others and it fulfills a fantasy of those who do us harm getting theirs, something which rarely happens in real life.
Because it is so ubiquitous it’s a form that risks becoming stale (and if we're honest, it actually has turned into that). Which may be what audiences want but it doesn't always make for good movies. Which makes it both tempting and welcoming for a filmmaker to subvert those expectations and play with the sentiments behind them. Like all temptations, however, it's playing with fire because abusing audience expectations requires replacing them with something better or risks both alienating that audience and undermining the point trying to be made.
Case in point: John Madden's adaptation of the Israeli thriller "Ha-Hov" – "The Debt."
In 1965 a group of three Mossad agents are smuggled into East Berlin to verify the identity of Doctor Dieter Vogel, the Surgeon of Birkenau, capture him and smuggle him back to Israel for trial. Which sounds on the outside like a perfect recipe for a revenge thriller. There are no better villains out there than Nazi concentration camp war criminals and Christensen plays Vogel to the hilt, alternatively humane and evil, waffling between fear for his wife and explaining why the Jews deserved what they got.
The mission goes half right, except instead of returning him young first-time agent Rachel (Jessica Chastain) is forced to kill him and three return as heroes. Heroes who hate talking about what they've done, hate talking to each other and in older Rachel's (Helen Mirren) case have spent several years drinking herself into peace. Because something they've never told anyone also happened during that mission. Something so bad it makes older David (Ciarán Hinds) walk in front of a truck during the opening credits. And Rachel just can't hold it in any more.
Madden and his partners at MARV Films, producer-writer Matthew Vaughn ("X-Men: First Class") and Jane Goldman ("Stardust"), spend the first half of "The Debt" building up what seems like a standard variation on thriller, with equal focus on the characters and the plot they are devising. The characters themselves start out as brief strokes – Stefan (Martin Csokas) is the worldly, arrogant team lead, partnered for several years with the introspective David (Sam Worthington), only to find their partnership altered at the last minute when Rachel is added to the mix. Vogel is believed to be practicing medicine as a gynecologist and Rachel is needed to actually identify him and bring him in.
And then it all falls apart and "The Debt" quickly reveals its real and more vibrant colors as a character drama picking at the meaning of heroism. Madden (following in the footsteps of original writer-director Assaf Bernstein) has taken one of the most straightforward heroic story-lines imaginable – Jewish agents hunting down a Nazi war criminal in Germany during the Cold War – and pulled the rug out from under his characters and his audience. Nothing they've done is heroic and they're only shot at real heroism is to tell the truth about their cowardice.
It's an intriguing premise, well developed by Madden and for the most well acted. Chastain and Mirren are pitch perfect as the idealistic and cynical versions of Rachel and Csokas' natural scenery chewing is just the right tone for Stefan's arrogance. The only real weak point is Worthington, cast against type as an introspective loner and hinted at as a survivor of the Holocaust as (presumably) a child. Worthington unfortunately plays introverted mostly as glaring and brooding and little else, though that is partly scripts fault as he has little to do on the actual mission. His only real raison de'etre is to complete the triangle between Rachel and Stefan. Although he and Rachel clearly long for each other his past makes him incapable of reciprocating, forcing her into Stefan's arms.
He also exists to create the only model for actual heroism in a world of revenge, the only member of the group who wants to put Vogel on trial more than he wants to kill him despite having the most personal reasons for the latter, and the world beats him down for his idealism.
And then it all falls apart, and not because it's supposed to. Madden can only seem to pull himself so far away from the model is trying to explore before snapping back like a stretched rubber band. The result is a film that tries to have its cake and eat it too as older Rachel makes one last ditch stab at fixing the mistakes of her past. It's not just disheartening; it ruins much of the impact of the point the film has been trying to make a last ditch appeal to an audience who has begun expecting something different. They've built their own Catch-22 wherein anyone who likes the ending will dislike the rest of the film and anyone who likes the rest of the film will dislike large portions of the ending.
The result is both cynical and extremely bitter, far more so than your average thriller audience may be prepared for. Despite those flaws "The Debt's" attempt at examining these traits we take for granted among very difficult surroundings. Mostly excellent performances take a lot of the brunt for some of the lesser filmmaking choices, but if only it had followed through on its original ambition all the way. That would have been truly heroic.
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