‘The Debt’ is one of those movies that has an intriguing trailer which entices audiences into the theater, but in the end doesn’t deliver despite an impressive cast and cloak and dagger storyline. In fact, there are so many holes in the plot that you could drive an East German 1960’s era ambulance through it.
The film is a remake of the 2007 Israeli movie of the same name which probably shouldn’t have been put on the Hollywood list for remaking for English speaking audiences. I’m going to be very blunt in this review so if you have any inkling of wanting to see this film then you should move along to another article; if however you are intrigued with the title of the review I’ll get to it very soon. But before I do so, I want to tackle the casting. Listen kittens, there isn’t an actress that I enjoy watching more than Helen Mirren – she’s talented, she’s beautiful, she’s intelligent, she’s on top of her game at an age where most folks are retiring (HELL she’s the QUEEN) but despite her numerous charms, she can’t save ‘The Debt’ from being a mess. If it wasn’t for the other nonsense she might have been able to save the film from itself, but there was too much wrong to be rescued by what was right.
I think the thing that had me most perplexed for the first half of the film was when it is revealed that Sam Worthingtonplays the younger version of Ciaran Hindswhile Tom Wilkinsonis the older version of Marton Csokas. I don’t know if it is clear from the links, but in the movie Worthington looks more like he would morph into Wilkinson, while Hinds and Csokas look as if they could be father and son. You expect at some point it will be revealed through some sort of spy switcheroo Worthington (who is cast as David) and Csokas (Stefan) had to trade identities, but alas it never comes to pass.
The story has two points of reference; Israel 1997 and East Germany late 1965 early 1966. Three young Mossad agents are stationed in East Berlin in order to kidnap and presumably take back to Israeli for trail a Nazi surgeon who was known as the Butcher of Birkenau. Both David and Rachel (the younger version played by Jessica Chastain who is currently making a splash in Hollywood – later Mirren takes over the role) are children of parents who were killed during the Holocaust thus have emotional reasons for bringing the war criminal to justice whereas career advancement appears to be the primary motivating factor for Stefan. This is the first assignment for twenty-five year old Rachel who is supposed to act as if she is the young wife of David. In several scenes they walk around Berlin holding hands to only turn the corner and awkwardly release their grasp…in such a way that hints that they sort of like holding hands. (I also have to note that just because you turn a street corner doesn’t mean that people will not notice you are acting like strangers and not husband and wife.) Stefan’s role is unclear, but the three of them share an apartment.
The pivotal person for the success of the operation is Rachel who under the disguise of a young wife wanting to get pregnant goes to Dieter Vogel (their target) for gynecological exams. I’m going to stop right here and makes some comments. One, there was no reference to gynecological exams in the previews which was wise because most women don’t want to spend their recreational cinema time watching another woman in those delightful metal stirrups…let alone the numerous times Rachel goes to see the evil doc. Further, it is hard to divorce oneself from the knowledge that the examination takes place in the mid-1960s in a Communist country with only Rachel and the doctor present (no friendly nurse holding your hand). I suppose it was wise not to include references to gynecological exams in the trailer since I probably would have nixed seeing ‘The Debt’ and I suspect that others of my sex might feel the same. Second, the movie does itself an injustice when the elaborate plan to capture the war criminal involves Rachel appearing to do most of the work (photographing the doctor with a James Bond like camera, playing the before mentioned role of the patient, and actually incapacitating the man with a swift leg hold while giving him a shot of something that knocks him out). Lest I forget to mention the dressing down she receives from Stefan when the Plan A of the mission fails. Allow me to point out that Plan A involved David, her supposed husband who had been walking her to the clinic for every appointment (a supportive husband who might have been noted by those working in the office) appearing to be one of the emergency workers who comes to transport the doctor to the hospital because his wife (a nurse) and the rest of the staff think he is having a heart attack. BTW, I’m further confused as to the lack of emergency care and protocol one would presume a doctor’s office would have, but I suppose that is a trifling observation compared to the rest of the problems with the film.
Stop reading if you don’t want to know the big reveal – or the “debt” in the title. After failing to get the doctor out of the city they end up keeping the man tied up in their apartment. Rachel can’t leave their humble abode because she had been made by the authorities during their botched mission. Up until then the doctor, if you are judging his character from only the way he cared for his patient didn’t seem to be a bad sort, however he starts to play mind games with the trio which include revealing the reason Rachel is throwing up in the morning is because she is…well you can guess. Of course one can’t expect three relatively good looking twentysomethings to share a Berlin flat without someone getting their grove on. Rachel tries to get close with David, but he just can’t go there because of his past. She then rebounds with Stefan where she finds comfort for a night. This all gives the doctor fodder which eventually allows him to cause a distraction to escape. It is here that they all make a decision that eventually haunts them. * Spoiler * they tell their upper contacts that while the doctor attempted to escape, and in the process cutting her beautiful face, Rachel shot him dead.
I think the audience would be more invested in the group if it wasn’t for the fact that Rachel ends up basically making a career of talking about how when she shot the Butcher of Birkenau. She never neglects to add that while injured, bleeding, and aiming she didn’t think about herself but of her deceased mother. It is almost a Holocaust Hallmark moment and cheapens the drama. I felt there needed to be some scene that either established how Rachel through the years bought into the original lie or how she had been racked with guilt for lying – granted there are hints of the later, but didn’t think it was enough. Things come to fruition after Rachel’s and Stefan’s journalist daughter publishes a book about the mission and the long missing David returns.
This part should have been brilliant since finally the film focuses on Mirren as Rachel. The former Nazi doctor may be at a retirement facility in the Ukraine and if Rachel is to save face with her daughter it means that she needs to take a road trip and finally put an end to the Butcher of Birkenau. Since I have revealed practically everything else except for the older David throwing himself in front of a bus and Stefan ending up being wheelchair bound (oops I did it again) I might as well report that the patient Rachel thinks is the doctor isn’t, however she manages to run into the real one as she is leaving the facility. Despite his age, which in 1997 one can safely guess he is in his ninth decade if not more, the war criminal still has some fight left in him and manages to once again get the upper hand on Rachel until she turns the tables and he ends up dead.
And if you were supposing that Rachel would return to her life knowing that she finally brought the war criminal/bane of her existence to justice, think again. While visiting the before mentioned other patient who was assumed to be the former Nazi but wasn’t (yet had a one o’clock appointment to be interviewed by a prominent journalist) Rachel left a note revealing the truth. So the movie ends with Rachel bleeding on a nursing home floor where staph infections have staph infections. Her truth is revealed to a journalist which she has no ties while her daughter’s book will all be for naught…and most of all she and David never got their grove on.
I know I have been hard on ‘The Debt’ but I was expecting a much better film (at one point when it was slated to debut last December it was being touted as an Oscar contender). I don’t think it is necessarily one of the worst films of the year, but I do think it is a difficult movie to watch if you aren’t prepared for it. Further, if you are asking the audience to invest their time (and money) to a dark film whose only logical conclusion is going to be unhappy with a heavy hand of irony THEN MEND THE HOLES IN THE PLOT! Honestly, it might play better on the smaller scene.