The Debt

Mossad agents hunt for a Nazi war criminal in this compelling thriller

The Debt


Directed by John Madden. Starring Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds, Romi Aboulafia, Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington, Jesper Christensen. Written by Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, from the 2007 film written by Assaf Bernstein & Ido Rosenblum.

For a good 80 minutes, John Madden’s The Debt is a taut and suspenseful thriller surrounding an exciting subject: a Cold War-era plot by agents of Mossad to capture a particularly nasty Nazi war criminal so he can stand trial for his atrocities. But while the film works – and works well – for its first two-thirds, it falls apart for the climax, which is absurd, unnecessary, and thriller-movie cliché.

Based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, The Debt opens in 1997 Tel Aviv, where young writer Sarah Gold (Romi Aboulafia) has just come out with a new book detailing the mission to apprehend Dieter Vogel (the fictional “Surgeon of Birkenau”, obviously modeled after Josef Mengele) by three brave Mossad agents.

Gold has good sources: her mother, Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) was one of those agents; father Stephen Gold (Tom Wilkinson), was another, and still works for the government. But early scenes suggest something is afoot when Stephen solemnly visits with his ex-wife and the third agent involved, David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds). What really transpired 30 years ago?

We find out as The Debt segues for a lengthy flashback in 1966 East Berlin, with Jessica Chastain as Rachel, Marton Csokas as Stephen, and Sam Worthington as David. They track down and identify Vogel, now working as a gynecologist, with Rachel impersonating a patient; the horror of a Nazi war criminal working in this capacity is played to full effect, culminating in a scene where Rachel finally apprehends him during the course of an examination.

Despite the presence of Mirren, Wilkinson, and Hinds in the more contemporary scenes, where The Debt really shines is in the flashback sequences; the mission is intricately detailed and exciting, the characters are well-written and acted (particularly by Chastain, who has had an incredible star-making year in 2011 with roles in this and The Tree of Life, not to mention well-received roles in The Help and Take Shelter, with Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, Al Pacino’s Wilde Salome, Ami Canaan Mann’s (daughter of Michael) Texas Killing Fields, and John Hillcoat’s The Wettest County in the World still to come. Whew!)

Coming on the back of this strong midsection, however, are climatic thriller-oriented sequences, (mostly) involving Mirren’s character. These scenes feel so out of place they seem to come from a completely different movie. I haven’t seen the original to compare, but I doubt it in ended in such predictable Hollywood fashion.

While The Debt initially promises (and delivers) a realistic Munich-like Mossad spy tale, the ultimate result is a mixed bag. For Nazi war criminal thrillers, stick to the Laurence Olivier twofer Marathon Man and The Boys from Brazil.

Note: a few scenes in The Debt (about 10% of film) – mostly involving the character played by Christensen, although he switches to English about halfway through – are in German and Ukrainian, subtitled only in Czech on Prague screens.

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