Movie Review: “The Debt”

Written by Josh Litman September 13, 2011

The Debt (a remake of an Israeli movie called “Ha-Hov”) is a competently made, well-acted thriller. But it has the feeling of starting out strong, then proceeding to get weaker as it moves along. The film has an opportunity to fully redeem itself at the end, but it can’t quite muster up the desired emotional resonance. It’s too subtle for its own good. But it does leave you thinking.

The Debt is a film that takes place in two separate timelines. It follows three Israeli Mossad agents — Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas), and David (Sam Worthington) — who are sent on a mission to East Berlin in 1966 to capture the Mengele-like Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) and haul him back to Israel to stand trial.

The film, however, also takes place in 1997 in Tel Aviv, where the three agents (now respectively played by Helen Mirren, Ciarán Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson) are portrayed as venerated heroes for taking out the Nazi Vogel when they had him in their clutches in 1966. …But what really happened?

The Debt immediately brings to mind thoughts of another film involving Israeli Mossad agents on the hunt: Steven Spielberg’s Munich. However, these are, in fact, two very different movies. Whereas Munich told a story of revenge and how violence could beget more violence, The Debt is primarily a story about regret. The Debt is also much more of a slow burn and has a lot less action than one might expect.

It is curious to note that both films (The Debt and Munich) portray Mossad agents as somewhat inept (i.e., they don’t seem to know what the hell they’re doing half the time). I’m really not sure why this is. I get that real secret agents might not be as suave or confident as James Bond, but I also doubt they’re this ill-prepared.

The acting is excellent all-round, with a standout performance by the gorgeous Jessica Chastain who portrays the young Rachel. And while it isn’t saying too much, Worthington (Clash of the Titans, Terminator Salvation, Avatar) gives a career-best performance himself.

The plot, which shifts between timelines, can seem a little confusing at first. However, it turns out to be rather simple — perhaps too simple. This is a case where a simple plot is made to look more complex as a result of being communicated in a complicated manner. This lends to a feeling of the plot being stretched out, which might account for the film feeling weaker as it goes along.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the story is the relationship between the three agents. Stephan is brash and outspoken; David is soft-spoken, yet passionate; and Rachel is brave and beautiful, yet vulnerable. It becomes no surprise that a love triangle forms between the three. However, the subtle, melancholic way in which the film goes about this relationship is refreshing.

The manner in which each agent reacts to Dr. Vogel is also enticing drama. This part of the film involves Rachel, David, and Stephan stuck in a house taking care of the hostage Dr. Vogel (I dubbed it “Three Jews and a Nazi”). It’s a lot of waiting around, but it’s also quite enlightening, character-wise. All three agents were children borne out of the Holocaust, which makes this mission that much more personal for them. And so it’s captivating to see how much restraint they can show before reaching their individual breaking points. However, I feel the film could have done more with this “Three Jews and a Nazi” setup.

Finally, the Dr. Vogel character is a bit of a mixed bag. The actor (Christensen) plays him well enough, but he inevitably turns into a Nazi cliché. When he is Dr. Bernhardt the gynecologist (his cover in the early part of the film), he is a much more fascinating — and admittedly horrifying — character (“This is the speculum…this is my hand.”). But once he’s captured, the character becomes a lot less frightening — even as he riles the three agents up, one by one.

In conclusion, The Debt is one of those movies you really want to love, but just can’t. That’s not to say it is a bad film; it’s a solid, well-made, well-acted thriller and all that jazz…but it just isn’t emotionally involving enough. As an audience, we watch the emotional toll events take on the characters, but we don’t necessarily experience it. There are the rare times we do — and it’s powerful and haunting stuff — but it’s simply not prevalent enough. The film tries hard to be subtle, and in fact it succeeds…but often at the cost of fully letting the viewer in.

I would have traded some of that subtlety for a more potent climax. The film really needed a punch-to-the-gut kind of ending, but alas it leaves the viewer feeling somewhat unfulfilled and dissatisfied. It’s upsetting, because there was definitely potential here for a more deeply evocative film. Nevertheless, unlike the three Mossad agents, I wasn’t filled with any sense of regret; The Debt was a film worth seeing. I encourage you to check it out, too, despite its faults. At the very least, you won’t regret it.

My Rating: 7.5/10


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About Josh Litman

Josh Litman

Director/producer/writer/actor/editor/cinematographer/musician/neuroscientist… Josh prides himself on being simultaneously awesome and modest. In addition to We Eat Films, Josh also produces his own work (films, writing) under the banner of Action Potential Productions and has his own website, too, where his handiwork can be viewed: -- or (if you prefer).

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