Music Feature

Film Review: The Debt

by Piers Marchant
A Nazi criminal haunts the lives of three failed Mossad agents.

Dir. John Madden
Score: 6.3

Spy movies tend to run either gritty and substantial, or overblown and idiotic, here we have a bit of both. John Madden's espionage thriller features a beautiful, highly trained secret ops agent from Mossad, prepared for nearly any contingency, but rather than the kind of bubblegum cartoon assassin so favored by Angelina Jolie, the sort who can wipe out a regiment of trained soldiers without ever losing their smirk, we have quite the opposite. This agent, Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain) -- holed up in West Berlin with two other male agents, brash leader Stefan (Marton Csokas) and young idealist David (Sam Worthington), as they await the green light for their mission -- is fidgety, nervous and haunted by neurotic dreams about failing to do her job properly.

It turns out, her fears are more than substantiated. The film shifts in time from the initial Israeli mission in 1966 to 30 years later, after all three agents have been duly venerated and celebrated for the success of their efforts. The elder Rachel (Helen Mirren) has basked in the glow of her exploits for 30 years, right up until her daughter (Romi Aboulafia) writes a memoir about them. But the elder Rachel still harbors a dark secret: The young Mossad agents were sent to Berlin in order to track down and capture alive an escaped Nazi war criminal, Dr. Vogel (Jesper Christensen), known as the "surgeon of Birkenau." In the course of things, however, things went terribly wrong, which forced the trio to enact a lie they all have had to live with for the rest of their lives.

As with many films that attempt this kind of timestream narrative, only one half really works. The film's early scenes are by far the most engaging and rewarding. Chastain, Worthington and Csokas have a good working chemistry and the story moves at a satisfyingly breathtaking clip. After the capture of Dr. Vogel, it also successfully mines the increasingly distressing effect of having to care for a villain so cruel and soulless, he seems almost happy to be recognized for his previous work as a Nazi sadist. A bit like a German Hannibal Lecter, he's also able to get in the heads of the two younger agents, which he uses to his chillingly effective advantage. The scenes with the agents having to contend with Dr. Vogel are easily the best realized in the film: In Madden's skillful hands, even the basic feeding of the bound Vogel becomes sickeningly palpable. Oatmeal has never appeared so vile as it appears in Vogel's open mouth.

Unfortunately, as the film shifts gears into 1997, many of the good things the earlier scenes built up quickly fall apart. Although certainly capably acted by the always adept Mirren, along with running mates Tom Wilkinson and CiarĂ¡n Hinds, the scenes trot along in their way, but without much of the snap and crackle of the other half of the film. It's doubly difficult to watch, as the aged Rachel once again tracks down Vogel for climactic battle, now between two senior citizens. Mirren, who played a similar role in 2010's Red is always game, it would seem, for some off-kilter action scenes, but by the time the two well-aged combatants have at it in a men's room, the tone of the film, so carefully crafted in the earlier sequences, seems to have vanished altogether. Evil might run stronger than good in certain cases, but I believe the basic laws of human physiology are still meant to apply.

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