Split between two settings, two time periods, and two casts, it’s no wonder that John Madden’s The Debt divides so easily into two levels of quality. There’s one part that I like to call a classy, sexy Cold War spy thriller. There’s another part that I like to call “the ending.”
Three Mossad agents share an apartment in East Berlin in 1966; two men and a young woman. The cramped quarters in a hostile land breeds danger and romantic tension. Their job is to identify and take captive a Mengele-like Nazi doctor who tortured Jews in a concentration camp and blended back into society after the war. This leads to some of the creepiest moments in cinematic gynecology, as the young woman agent (Jessica Chastain of The Help and The Tree of Life) comes face to face (among other anatomical places) with the target.
The Debt is at its most convincing moments in this past, when it feels like the mature spy films and political thrillers of many years ago. The tension inside the apartment builds effectively through looks, touches, and silences. Not for the first time, Chastain and Sam Worthington are particularly adept at saying a lot without saying much.
The Sixties era feels like it should go on forever, or at least for two hours, whichever comes first. Unfortunately, it is bookended by the present (1997), in which Helen Mirren takes over for Chastain. The plot tries to pivot to issues of lies and regrets lingering from the mission. And it’s here that The Debt goes from tight and plausible spy film to preposterous thriller with forced tensions. It seems like the steady Madden (best known for Shakespeare in Love) and the writers are aware of the weaknesses and unsuccessfully try to shore them up with hackneyed suspense beats.
If an already absurd scene of Mirren snooping through an office lacks tension, well then, let’s send in the after-hours canoodling couple to fool around. When you start trying to spread the jelly, it’s an admission that all you have is plain peanut butter.
The biggest hint that someone knows something is wrong: cars. Everywhere. People entering them, people leaving them, quick stops, doors snapping open, ominous drives to Ukrainian nowheres overlaid with grave synth music. As we reach a flat tire ending inside a Ukrainian mental hospital, it’s obvious that the spare isn’t the only thing being pulled out of the rear.
The automotive strangulation is so different from what’s good about the Sixties portion–so unforced and natural. Even being adapted from an Israeli movie, I would have considered removing a good portion of the modern story.
I do recommend it, but The Debt is a film where less would have been more.
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