All Paid Up

12 Sep

If you were to make a mashup of Munich and Inglorious Basterds, you would have The Debt. Like Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated film, this movie explores the toll revenge takes when Israeli agents seek to even the score with enemies of their people, and features a cast that includes Ciarán Hinds. And like Quentin Tarantino’s also-Oscar-nominated film, it features Jews kicking ass (specifically, a strong female Jew kicking ass), and a revenge plot involving Nazis. With direction by Oscar-nominated John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and a cast that also includes Oscar winner Helen Mirren, The Debt takes a rightful place with those other films.

The Debt flashes back and forth between two time periods: 1966 and 1997. In that later year, we meet retired Mossad agents Rachel (Mirren), Stefan (Tom Wilkinson), and David (Hinds), who are brought together because of a new book about their mission in 1966, when the trio (played, respectively, by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington) tracked down and kidnapped Dieter Vogel, the former Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen), in East Berlin, and killed him. Or did they? In 1997, developments call their successful mission into question, and send one of the three back into secret duty.

A tense thriller, The Debt is carried by strong performances across the board. But it’s the ethical and moral issues that left the greater impact on me. The trio’s mission is simply to kidnap Vogel and bring him home to stand trial. That is how it is decided they will right the wrong. But when things go awry, the trio has other options, ones they don’t want. As at least one character says, they are not murderers, they are people of peace. No matter how many deaths Vogel caused during World War II, how great must the crime be to merit an equal response? As noted, this is a similar issue covered in Munich, and here it is no less an intense conflict, especially as Vogel, now held prisoner and a witness to the interactions and frustrations between the trio, begins to exploit the situation, playing anti-Semitic mind games with any of the three who listens.

Chastain, whose Rachel is not just caught between right and wrong, but is also the focal point of a love triangle, shows how challenging the dilemma is. Her simultaneously tough and fearful performance is a mile away from the ones she gave in The Help and Tree of Life. And in Rachel’s later years, Mirren communicates less through words than by facial expressions how that answer never gets easier.

Right and wrong is not as simple as black and white. And in The Debt, our “heroes” earn your support and your sympathy. That doesn’t make what they do any easier to watch. I’m giving the movie a B+.

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