Friday, June 8, 2012

The Debt: A tense, well-acted thriller

Many of the choices we make in life have repercussions. But what if one of those choices was a matter of life & death, and the result was living with a lie for years afterward? That’s the intriguing setup behind The Debt (2010). In the mid 1960s, three Mossad agents are in East Berlin hunting a Nazi war criminal known as “The Surgeon of Birkenau.” Their mission is to capture him and bring him back to Israel to stand trial. But something goes wrong, and agent Rachel Singer is forced to shoot him as he tries to escape. Still, the trio is hailed as heroes upon their return, for bringing such an evil man to justice.

Fast forward to 1997, and Rachel’s daughter has written a book about the operation, and her mother’s part in it. Then, one of the agents who was on the mission commits suicide. Rachel begins to doubt the group’s actions back in the 60s, and the truth about what really happened slowly begins to emerge. The film moves back and forth in time between the 60s and the present, allowing us to see the mission unfold. As Rachel struggles with her feelings about what occurred, a ghost from the past re-emerges, and forces her to make a difficult decision.

This is a tense, emotional thriller, with great performances by a talented cast. Helen Mirren (The Queen) plays the older Rachel, along with Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton) as Stefan and Ciaran Hinds (There Will Be Blood) as David, the other two agents from the mission. Jessica Chastain (The Help), Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington (Avatar) play their younger selves. Mirren & Chastain standout in their shared role, as does Jesper Christensen as the manipulative Nazi.

The flashback structure works well within the context of the film. We’re given just enough information (sometimes from different perspectives) as the story moves forward, so we gather our own conclusions about events. Then the true resolution of what happened in the 60s, and its aftermath, come to light. It’s an old school film that recalls some of the thrillers of 70s, including Marathon Man (1976) and The Day of The Jackal (1973).

The movie is tautly directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) & co-written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman & Peter Straughan, based on an Israeli film titled Ha-Hov (2007).  Vaughn & Goldman also co-wrote X-Men: First Class (2011) and Stardust (2007). If you’re looking for a smart, literate spy drama with some good performances, The Debt is worth seeking out. The film is now available on Blu-ray & DVD.

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