The thriller genre tends to suffer from formula. Plots focus on an everyday man caught up in a grand conspiracy or a spy out to get a rival or those who set him up. In each respective case, the “thrills” of the genre come from the paranoia and action. Rarely does drama drive the suspense of one of these kinds of films.
Maybe its focus on its characters is part of what makes The Debt such a good film. The situation, the fear of discovery and death are all present, but the driving force of the movie is its characters. The film, a remake of the Israeli film (HaChov in Hebrew), bears a familiar setup with a more magnificent execution.
In 1966, a Mossad cell, made up of its leader Stefan (Martin Csokas), David (Sam Worthington) and new member Rachel (Jessica Chastain) entered East Germany to capture and extract a Mengele-like Nazi scientist (Jasper Christensen). But the film also runs a second plot, set in 1997 as the three Israelis (played here by Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds and Helen Mirren) have to deal with the repercussions as a book detailing their mission is approaching release.
The characters are the film’s main draw, and the actors are excellent. Rachel serves as the movie’s focal point, and Chastain and Mirren are great. Chastain plays Rachel with a nervous air, unsure of herself on her first mission, while Mirren is a jaded, bitter older woman. Csokas is interesting as the ambitious Stefan, an excellent leader who turns into a twitchy, angry person once things start going wrong.
Christensen also does well, avoiding the usual clichés of sinister Nazis. Instead, he is menacing and manipulative but never at any moment chews the scenery or invokes parody. His interactions with the cast are absolutely chilling.
One problem a film like this faces is the difference between the younger and older cast. The older actors must still be recognizable as the characters, but they can’t be carbon copies — for plot and acting reasons. The Debt’s actors give unique performances, but thanks to the revelations and events near the film’s conclusion, every difference feels justified and natural.
The film’s biggest surprise is Sam Worthington. The man is a great actor, and his films in Australia, such as 2006’s Macbeth, are excellent. Unfortunately, his American output has been nothing but action films, most of low caliber. Here, he redeems his skill. David is a tormented person, unsure of how to respond to people and driven with a desire for justice, nothing else. The moments where The Debt focuses on him are some of the best scenes in the film.
The film also challenges the characters. These are not Jason Bourne types, with little to worry about and a solid resolve. They’re driven but also susceptible to personal desires, which are put to the test. In the three leads’ interplay, The Debt ran the risk of jumping into a romantic cliché, but with each new piece of insight into who these people are, the more things become less stereotypical and much more compelling.
John Madden’s direction, working with a script co-written by Matthew Vaughn (director of this year’s X-Men: First Class), works on a slow burn. At first, it seems as if the film gives away major plot points, but again, as it goes on and each motivation is revealed, it’s clear the pacing is deliberate and smart.
Ben Davis’ cinematography (who also filmed the visually stunning Layer Cake and Stardust) gives the film a stark, but never dull feel. The ’90s scenes in Tel Aviv are bright and soft, reflecting the calm of the cast’s older age, while the scenes in East Berlin are wet and gray, sharp enough to heighten the tension.
If there is one problem with the film, it is that the music occasionally becomes overpowering, but the storytelling is too good for it to be more than a slight nuisance.
The Debt is an excellent thriller and one of the better spy films in recent memory. By focusing on the characters and putting a personal consequence to each action, the movie breaks both the mold of the genre and any possible cliché. It is definitely one of the year’s best films and should not be missed.