The Debt

I can only imagine how the pitch for this movie went down in a Hollywood boardroom.

“Okay, it’s going to be the best Jewish revenge thriller since Munich, without the over-the-top dialogue and anachronistic soundtrack of Inglourious Basterds, and it’ll be directed by the guy who made Shakespeare in Love.”

Sounds good? Surprisingly, it’s much better than it sounds. The Debt may be the best movie I’ve seen in theatres this year.

In 1966, a trio of Mossad agents are tasked with locating and capturing an elusive Nazi war criminal – the Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen) – in East Berlin. Two of them, David (Sam Worthington) and Rachel (Jessica Chastain) pose as a young married couple having difficulties getting pregnant and arrange an appointment with their target who is posing as a innocuous gynecologist. I love it when ordinary, banal situations are transformed into something more sinister and dangerous through film – and the gynecologist scenes in The Debt are tense and threatening with the lone female agent at her most vulnerable. This is a suspense film of the highest form.

The Debt performs cinematic alchemy by making the least interesting scenes captivating and fast paced. During a dinner party in 1997, the older Rachel (Helen Mirren) reads a passage from her daughter’s book from the team’s capture of the Surgeon of Birkenau that explains how her face became scarred. How Madden has directed the scene – shots of furtive glances, Mirren’s purposely stilted acting – indicates to the audience that something is “off,” even if we can’t quite put our finger on it. The film puts us firmly in the espionage world – a place of half-truths, lies, and shadowy allies – and though the leads left that world three decades ago, it follows them around during dinner parties, book launches, and even in their conversations with each other. Nothing is boring in the life of a spy, retired or otherwise.

The emotional core of the film is a love triangle that props up between the three Mossad agents during their 1966 mission. Rachel gives openly-longing glances at David, but his contained demeanor gives her no indication of his interest. Meanwhile their mission commander, Stephan (Marton Csokas) admires Rachel’s beauty but is driven by lust, rather than love. The internal dynamics of the team influences and affects their decision-making during the mission, and threatens to have disastrous consequences. The kidnapped Surgeon delights in taunting his captors and uses their love triangle to psychologically torment them, looking for any advantage that may tip the scales in favour of his escape.

Pitch-perfect performances, an intriguing (rather than shoehorned-in) love triangle, Krav Maga, swirling cigarette smoke, an unforgettable monster, lies, murder, the creepiest gynecologist this side of Dead Ringers and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and a relentless pace make this one of the best movies of 2011. I thought it was miles above Munich, and generally when I consider Madden and Spielberg in the same sentence, Spielberg wins. Not this time.

Grade: A

Side note: The only thing keeping this film from an A+ would be a problem I had with the film’s ending. There’s a decision made at the end of the film that I felt didn’t coincide with the logic of the movie. It seemed like an entirely selfish choice that I felt lessened the power of the film’s conclusion.

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2 Responses to The Debt

  1. Nostra says:

    Haven’t heard of this at all, but reading this I’m interested. Will note this one down as a movie to look out for as I’ve not seen it in the cinema listings yet.

  2. Modest Movie says:

    Definitely do. It comes out August 31st but I’m not sure how many theaters it will be playing in. Best movie I have seen in 2011.

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