The Debt | On Demand review
The Debt is a curious addition to the genre of the Semitic action movie.
A remake of a 2007 Israeli thriller, The Debt initially looks as though it will assume the pious mantle of other recent Semitic action movies. Telling the story of a group of Mossad agents’ attempts to hunt down a hiding Nazi war criminal, it traffics in weighty moral questions, comes signed by an Oscar-nominated director (John Madden, of Shakespeare in Love fame) and features a cast that seems more suited for Elizabethan theater than dreidel spinning.
Indeed, that’s how similar recent films, such as Munich and Defiance, have chosen to code their Jewish action heroes; there’s something about seeing a star who “looks Jewish” kicking ass that audiences apparently find off-putting. (In a Film Comment review of Inglourious Basterds, critic Scott Foundas provocatively argued that much of the discomfort with Quentin Tarantino’s anarchic war movie stemmed from the filmmaker’s casting of “actors of distinctly Semitic countenance” in the title roles.) In this case, the casting director arguably has an excuse: The characters are working undercover. After a framing strand set in 1997, The Debt flashes back to the mid-’60s, when the three agents take an apartment in East Berlin as part of a plan to capture a Mengele-like doctor (Jesper Christensen), now working as a fierce-featured but seemingly caring gynecologist. The operatives have a biblically dysfunctional dynamic even at the outset: Bullheaded, politically ambitious Stephan (Marton Csokas) taunts weak, doubting David (Sam Worthington), a man already so meek he passes up the opportunity to take a willing Rachel (Jessica Chastain) to bed, then spends the rest of the movie seething with jealousy.
For its first half, The Debt is a straightforward suspense picture, as the three execute an abduction plan that involves trains, elaborate timing and Rachel’s memorably acrobatic use of a syringe. The scenes of Chastain in the stirrups are particularly queasy, inescapably calling to mind both the doctor’s wartime experiments and scenes from another thriller about a hiding Nazi physician, Marathon Man. Needless to say, the plot does not go off like clockwork, and the team winds up back in the flat, where recriminations, missteps and mind games ensue.
It’s here, having set the stage for a Talmudic argument on whether revenge is a form of justice (or perhaps just a retread of Death and the Maiden), that The Debt reveals itself to be far more interested in shoot-’em-ups than philosophical inquiries. The movie suddenly flashes forward to its 1997 strand, the better to facilitate more espionage. Worthington, Csokas and Chastain’s characters are here played by Ciaran Hinds, Tom Wilkinson and Helen Mirren, who are no more or less believeable than their counterparts.
Like Inglourious Basterds, The Debt deals with a rewriting of history, but instead of celebrating the power of movies or pageantry (see also: To Be or Not to Be) to defeat the Nazis, The Debt offers a weird reversal, examining what happens when myth confronts reality. Best not to give anything away, but the film’s assorted detours and hazy politics are about as persuasive as Mirren’s sudden ability to speak Ukrainian. Then again, for sheer mishegas, action movies don’t get much more Jewish than this.
The Debt comes to VOD, DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday 6.