February 14, 2012 (DVD)
photo: Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington in The Debt, via Rotten Tomatoes
I’m always so surprised when a very good movie gets overlooked at the box office, and in the case of The Debt I’m even a little shocked. How could a Cold War spy drama starring Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds not garner attention? Is it that no one was really aware of its release, or is it simply that my radar is more attuned toward Mirren and Sam Worthington (as the younger version of Hinds’ character) that I watched for this to appear at the cinema? I do remember that the theatrical period was very short, so perhaps people really didn’t find this appealing. But having finally seen it, I have to wonder why not.
The Debt is the story of a trio of Mossad agents on an Israel-sanctioned mission in 1965 East Berlin to capture a doctor who had performed horrific experiments on Jews during the Holocaust. Due to a snafu, the mission is altered and the agents must improvise in attempt to complete the task without the support they once had. By the time the mission is completed there are secrets to keep, and the bulk of the movie is told in flashback as the three agents are faced with the price of their secrets after thirty years of living with them.
As the younger trio, Worthington, Marton Csokas, and Jessica Chastain are mesmerizing. Their relationships to each other are key factors in the drama, and each brings a very specific note to the overall story. While Csokas is brash and forceful, Worthington is quiet and controlled – a surprise for me as I expected him to be the bold one among the group. But in The Debt, it is Worthington who brings charm and grace to the film. Chastain is also a joy to watch, as her character transforms from green field agent struggling to control her fear to a steely, hard-hearted woman who chooses to bury the past. Chastain, in fact, is the treasure of this film, and she is the chief reason to see it. As the movie progresses, though, and the story catches up to the present day, it is Mirren who takes center stage, capturing all of Chastain’s nuances to show the affects of a 30-year secret buried in the soul. I’ve not seen Mirren play such a brittle character in some time, if ever, and it’s impossible to look away when she’s onscreen… even while struggling to find sympathy for her character.
There are unsettling scenes in The Debt, and there is a wealth of story that could have been (yet wasn’t) mined in this film, but every moment is engaging. I literally had to set aside everything in front of me because I was afraid to look away from the television screen. I love movies that make me feel as if every single moment is important to the story! And even when the tale concluded I hated that I’d reached the end. I wanted to see more missions by the younger Mossad agents. I wanted to see different relationships play out. I think I even wanted to see a different conclusion to the film despite the satisfaction I felt in the story’s chosen ending. In the end, I just really wanted these characters to appear again in another narrative. Which makes me wonder, again, why this movie didn’t find an audience. It’s certainly one that I will never forget.