THE DEBT Review

I remember seeing a trailer for "The Debt" around this time last year priming it for a late 2010 release that was no doubt trying to set it up for a hopeful awards season. It is a shame it missed that opportunity, but also makes one realize how much precedence is put on those films labeled as "award contenders" and how those with seemingly just as much potential but with a less flashy release date seem to flounder as the little films that couldn't. It is almost deeply disappointing that "The Debt" has been reduced to late summer fodder instead of awards season contender because this is a true, down and dirty espionage thriller with a profound message, a plethora of talent, and a prestigious director on its hands and though I, as well as my fellow audience members really seemed to enjoy the film, it did almost feel like we were the only ones who were going to see it. I hope I'm wrong, I hope this Helen Mirren vehicle finds its audience and doesn't get lost in the shuffle between "Shark Night 3D" and "A Good Ole Fashioned Orgy" but thanks to that transaction between Miramax owner Disney and soon-to-be new owners, it probably will be.

Rachel (Helen Mirren) and Stephen (Tom Wilkinson)
discuss a startling revelation in "The Debt".
It should also be noted "The Debt" is based on a 2007 Israeli film of the same name, but it never saw theatrical release here in the U.S. From that film, Matthew "Kick-Ass" Vaughn and a team of writers have made a strong translation that tells the story of three secret agents who worked together in the sixties and became close while attempting to complete a mission that involved capturing a Nazi war criminal so that he may finally be put on trial. The film transitions smoothly between the original mission of 1966 and how it is still affecting those involved thirty years later in 1997. And though Mirren is being touted as the star attraction here the film actually spends more time with the younger version of Mirren's Rachel Singer than it does her 1997 self. This isn't at all a bad thing though as young Rachel is played by one of the best and brightest upcoming actresses in Hollywood at the moment. If you've seen "The Help" you know how good Jessica Chastain is and once you see "The Debt" you will see how versatile she is. You might have already known this fact had you seen her in "The Tree of Life" but sadly, I have yet to see it. Chastain is easily the reason this film works as well as it does. Though I completely enjoyed the structure with which the story was conveyed and can truly appreciate the raw tension the action scenes caused, it would all just be background noise had we not a central figure to hang all of our hopes and sympathies with. Chastain gives us that. We feel her pain, we can almost touch her fear, yet we still feel a distance from her, one that never allows us to really figure her out until that final moment of the picture.

Young Rachel (Jessica Chastain), David (Sam Worthington),
and Stephen (Marton Csokas) train together.
As Rachel's fellow agents we have Stephen and David, two equally talented spies that have their distinct strengths and weaknesses. Stephen is suave, the clear leader while David is determined, dedicated, and impossible to read. As played by Sam Worthington David is a stoic figure, clearly full of integrity and pure in his quest to do what is right. Stephen is a man looking to get ahead, he is good at what he does and he knows it. He knows where his life is heading and has no plans of it being detoured. Both have interest in Rachel when she is assigned to join them on their secret mission. Rachel, clearly more intrigued by the mysterious David but unable to resist the charm of Stephen becomes caught in the middle. And while this might start to sound all too much like a soap opera set in 1966 Berlin, rest assured the sweet love story is only one of the elements adding to what makes this film so intense, so involving, but most importantly, so good. Relative unknown Marton Csokas plays the young Stephen who grows into the always reliable Tom Wilkinson while David is just as mysterious in his old age as played by Ciaran Hinds. These three become our lifeline into this dark, gloomy atmosphere Madden slowly builds as he delivers piece by piece the entire picture of what actually occurred on their mission. It is framed beautifully in the beginning and throughout it is as if the movie continues to tighten its grip on your collar because it literally feels as if it's pulling you in. It is hard to go to deep into detail without divulging key plot points, but "The Debt" is nothing short of an arresting thriller and one that not only presents a story with subject matter that is hard to dismiss but one that begs questions of the value of truth and what that value attributes to the quality of life.

Doktor Bernhardt aka "The Surgeon of  Birkenau"
(Jesper Christiansen) is evil beyond measure.
Sure, as I watched "The Debt" I was reminded of countless other films based around spies and secret missions, especially those involving Nazi's but never did they make me yearn to watch them instead of "The Debt". This film stands on its own, delivering a compelling idea on the experiences of looking a cruel evil in the face and deciding to do what is right or what is easy. And though I doubt that even with a December release date last year this film would have garnered many statues, the one I believe it might have had the best shot at is best supporting actor for Jesper Christiansen's portrayal of that evil incarnate. There is a section in the middle of the film where his Doktor Bernhardt plays mind games with the three young spies and creates a certain feeling in your stomach you can only get rid of by swallowing. He brings it to the forefront and to a breaking point where what could have been becomes what do we do now? It is what makes this thriller the best of its genre is many years and to the core is what makes me hope audiences choose this rather than the up-charge for 3D glasses this weekend. "The Debt" may not get the release date it deserves, but that shouldn't mean it doesn't get the attention.