The common moviegoing assumption that "art films" are medicinal and mainstream genre films are candy doesn't always hold true. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down in The Debt, a thriller that successfully partners high and low-art sensibilities.
Based on the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov, The Debt concerns three Mossad operatives whose confrontation of a Nazi war criminal wins them accolades. So why are they all so grim? We find out in two unfolding timelines: accounts of the 1966 mission as well as the 1997 incidents that dredge up long-buried secrets.
One curiosity of the film comes in the twinned performances of the actors playing the agents in past and present. In the past, first-time field agent Rachel (Jessica Chastain) joins the brooding David (Sam Worthington) and impulsive, animalistic Stefan (Marton Csokas) to ensnare an ex-Nazi doctor (Jesper Christensen) working as a proctologist in East Germany. In 1997 Israel, Rachel (Helen Mirren), David (Ciarán Hinds), and Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) squirm in the spotlight (refocused on them by the publication of a nonfiction book about the mission) and deal with unexpected developments from a past that won't die.
The Debt finds John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, Proof) directing a cleverly structured screenplay by Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, Stardust) and Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare at Goats). Vaughn and Goldman's genre ease generally complements Madden's classical approach to character and theme, and in several taut sequences, the director demonstrates he's hardly a slouch when it comes to suspense. Some of the most spine-tingling scenes trade not on blows and bullets, but on words, as the deviously insuating "Surgeon of Birkenau" plays mind games with his captors (doing expert work, Christensen refuses to let his crafty character become a caricature).
The film's final movement, which involves the retired Rachel being forced back into action, strains credibility to its limit, but by then we're invested in the psychic scar that matches her physical one. Though Mirren, Hinds and Wilkinson are predictably strong, their younger equivalents are allowed to surprise and impress all the more with their subtle shifts of emotion (Chastain, recently seen in The Tree of Life, is having the year to end all years). The dourness that mostly defines the film's tone doesn't preclude some release from Csokas' irreverent Stefan; still, self-doubt and repression only worsen over the years, tightening into suffocating guilt.
Amid the psychological thrills, bursts of action, and penetrating drama, The Debt makes room for understated romance, stoked by shared idealism; there's certainly enough going on to hold the audience rapt with anticipation. The story boils down to the importance of facing up to what one can and can't live with, and taking action to set matters right. On that level, all audiences will be able to recognize the secret agency in their own lives and the folly of living lies.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]