The Debt pays off

Good direction and performances save this thriller.

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When the lie that’s been told in The Debt is revealed, it’s of such magnitude and dramatic potency that it not only illuminates previous scenes, but it makes the moment of its revelation nearly unbearable because of what we’ve already been shown.

At its best, The Debt works a similar kind of visceral magic on its audience. Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) constructs the film as a series of gripping, suspenseful moments. What they add up to is another matter.

As the film opens in 1997, Helen Mirren plays Rachel Singer, a former agent of Mossad who is celebrated in her daughter’s new book for bravely killing a former Nazi doctor. One suicide and shocking revelation later, and the movie goes back in time to 1966, recounting the capture of the doctor by a trio of Mossad agents, including Singer, her soon-to-be husband Stephan, and the intense, lonely David.

Jessica Chastain is Mirren’s younger counterpart in these scenes, while the ubiquitous Sam Worthington (Avatar, Terminator: Salvation) portrays David, and Martin Csokas plays the group’s leader, Stephan, with masculine bravado. As they arrive at their safe house, their quarry, Dieter Vogel, is living his life in East Berlin as a gynecologist. Jesper Christensen (Casino Royale) memorably plays Vogel with reptilian menace, frequently taunting his captors with either insincere empathy or outright aggression. Chastain, most recently seen is The Help, turns in another solid, believable performance as the 25-year-old version of Rachel Singer.

When the storytelling returns us to 1997, it forces Mirren’s troubled Singer to deal with astounding and unwelcome information delivered by Stephan, and the suspense improbably begins anew. The versatile Mirren admirably disappears into the role of a woman who, whenever we see her, seems to be in a perpetual state of worry. Mirren’s portrayal, while not subtle, is nonetheless effective.

That’s pretty much true of the film as a whole. The Debt is so well made and acted, it’s easy to overlook the films many faults, including the way it focuses its drama on physical confrontation rather than the ideas it brings up. It also frequently plays like a summarized version of a much longer, more satisfying film.

As it is, The Debt is better as entertainment than it is at giving insight into how life-altering decisions are made, or how the people who make those decisions are able to justify and live with them. But judged on the basis of its crowd-pleasing craftsmanship, The Debt is a modestly engrossing thriller.

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