“Our emotions rise to meet the force coming from the screen...there’s something there that goes deeper than connoisseurship or taste. It’s a fusion of art and love.” — Upon retiring, 1991.
Derived from a 2007 Israeli film, The Debt is like a Cold War thriller working hard to be modern. The double-track story turns on cruel, violent choices and was directed with a heavy wallop by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love).
In 1997, retired Israeli agents Rachel (Helen Mirren), Stefan (Tom Wilkinson), and David (Ciarán Hinds) are revered heroes. In 1965, in East Berlin, they caught Dieter Vogel, the notorious Nazi “surgeon of Birkenau.” But the scheme led to a rotten secret, as we learn by following the young versions of Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stefan (Marton Csokas), and David (Sam Worthington). The scenes in a Berlin flat, rancid from fear, bad air, and bad food, have some grip, notably from the fine work of Chastain and Csokas.
Worthington is dull beef from the Avatar meat-locker, boring next to Jesper Christensen’s Vogel, the most magnetic Nazi swine since Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. Dr. Vogel’s gynecological exams with Chastain are gems of sick tension. After evoking the Holocaust, the story opts for a brutal finish, and the crude climax falls on Mirren’s small, creaking frame.
The finish is a mistake. Some guilt is best left asleep. By waking up a big one, The Debt flops into the most absurd showdown with a Nazi since frenzied Dobermans tore into Gregory Peck in The Boys from Brazil. That was hilariously awful; this is just obvious.
Reviewed in the movie capsules: Anita, Bellflower, Columbiana, Seven Days in Utopia, and Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness.