Bristling with dangers both corporeal and cerebral, ‘The Debt’ is a superbly crafted espionage thriller packed with Israeli-Nazi score settling post World War II. Mossad secret agent Rachel Singer — her initially defining years played by the white-hot Chastain, the older redefining ones by Oscar-winner Mirren — is the key that unlocks the story and its dilemmas. But the film overall is blessed by a crack cast — Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington and Jesper Christensen in particular — who keep your spine tingling and mind spinning as the story moves through a maze of deception. Presiding over the complexities is British director John Madden, a good match for the material. Madden sets the stage with an evocative scene, beautifully rendered by cinematographer Ben Davis, that will only gain force as the mystery is revealed. In the belly of a military transport plane, three people are in the shadows. As the back ramp opens, one of them whispers, ‘Breathe.’ It turns out to be fitting advice for the characters and not a bad suggestion for those of us watching. Jessica Chastain turns in a searing performance as young Rachel, infusing her with aching vulnerability. Csokas brings a visceral life to Stephan’s burning ambition, while Worthington embodies the tightly wound repression, righteousness and regret that will drive David. Madden keeps the action of past and present moving along like freight trains on parallel tracks, with a collision inevitable. A final chapter, written in blood by Mirren, shifts the balance of power of the film briefly in favor of the present, though ultimately the past wins the day. The bridge between the two is an absolutely riveting and chilling performance by Christensen. What makes him so fearsome is the way he tries to seduce the young Mossad agents — not looking for love, but for them to recognize him as much a human as they are, to see the very flaws they despise in him reflected in themselves — and in this Christensen’s nuance is lethal. Madden has woven in a series of tightly coiled and excellently choreographed action sequences that are ‘Bourne Identity’ quality, making ‘The Debt’ as bloody as it is brainy. Breathe.
An intelligent thriller. Stylishly directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), The Debt is a highly ambitious film. The film's refusal to simplify complicated moral terrain makes for a compelling tale. An absorbing story with deft portrayals by the three leads, pictured at two ages and played by six actors. Young Rachel is deftly played by Jessica Chastain, having a banner year with stellar performances in The Help and TheTree of Life. Sam Worthington does an excellent job as David. But the real revelation is New Zealand-born actor Marton Csokas as Stephan. Bearing a resemblance to Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck, with a hint of Kevin Spacey, Csokas has movie-star charisma and potent chemistry with Chastain. Mirren, Wilkinson and Hinds are among the finest actors of their generation. With its blend of taut action and profound revelations, The Debt is definitely worth an audience's investment.
Classy, solid and well-acted, ‘The Debt’ is a rare bit of meaty, intelligent filmmaking. With a cast that includes Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and a tremendous Jessica Chastain, led by ‘Shakespeare in Love’ director John Madden, it seems it would be hard to go wrong. Matthew Vaughn, the director of ‘Layer Cake’ and ‘Kick-Ass,’ co-wrote the script. It's smart and tense. The exceedingly capable Rachel (Chastain) and the strong, stoic David (Sam Worthington) are pretending to be a young married couple trying to have a baby in order to get close to an East Berlin doctor named Dieter Vogel (a chilling Jesper Christensen), a Nazi war criminal known notoriously during World War II as the Surgeon of Birkenau. Madden proves himself adept at crafting this kind of brainy, brawny action thriller with a mixture of well-placed silences and visceral camerawork. The performances are consistently strong, especially from Chastain in a far more grounded, muscular role than we've seen from her this year in ‘The Tree of Life’ and ‘The Help.’ Meanwhile, Mirren can do tough-but-vulnerable in her sleep.
The Debt is an exciting movie, full of crises and dramatic turns. Featuring the same characters in two time periods separated by 30 years, it has a quality of reflection - even contemplation - built into its design, as it finds time to consider the lingering effects of World War II, the nature of evil and the compromises that often arise despite the best of intentions. The beginning of Helen Mirren's performance is Jessica Chastain's psychological endpoint, and she charts the course meticulously, putting her own stamp on the character while subtly evoking Mirren's manner and inner life. This is the film in which Chastain gets to show her stuff, and she is an actress to watch.
Taut drama owes thrills to problems past and present. If the target here –a Nazi doctor living freely in East Berlin in 1966 –were a bag of money, as opposed to a wily sack of anti-Semitism, then the first half of the movie would rate as superfine stand-alone heist film, so tight are the scenes of three Israeli spies abducting him. The kidnapping and its claustrophobic aftermath are wrapped in a juicy frame story, set three decades later, where the same agents race to tie up some extremely loose ends. That’s two thrillers for the price of one, which should be plenty suspenseful in itself, especially given the presence of a superbly bitter Helen Mirren.
Set in two different eras, with two different trios playing the same characters, The Debt is gripping and gritty, a thriller that breeds genuine excitement in both of the time periods in which it is set.
John Madden’s film, from a script by Matthew Vaughn, is lean and to the point, a solid job of moving the action forward and keeping you in the moment without frills or showiness. The several fight sequences have the power of solid body blows; even Helen Mirren proves herself deadly at close range. But the real action is emotional: the blend of duty, regret, uncertainty, lust and longing that informs the younger trio, the renewed passion that Mirren taps into as an agent forcing herself out of retirement. Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington invest wordless moments with big feelings, even as they convince us of their ability to kill an enemy if necessary.
An added note about Jesper Christensen, who plays Vogel: He's perfect as the serpentine former Nazi now hiding in plain sight as a kindly old OB-GYN. His hooded eyes and thin-lipped smile are always revealing without ever being obvious. The Debt is what you want from an action thriller: a film that appeals to the adrenal gland without bypassing the brain. It's white-knuckle excitement that forces you to think about it afterward.