What could be a straight-forward plot becomes a bewildering guessing game. The Debt has a present and past flashback structure that is confusing. Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain and Marton Cskokas play three agents from Mossad in 1965 with an East Berlin mission: kidnap a Nazi war criminal and bring him to Israel to justice. The same characters appear in 1997, played though by Ciaran Hinds, Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson. I am one of those persons who thinks that deliberately getting yourself run over by a garbage truck is one of the worst ways to die, and that happens here. Much of the movie, rotating between six actors, has a murky if unreliable POV.
Any regular filmgoer can probably tell Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson apart. Even for less active filmgoers that shouldn’t be a problem. But how about trying to guess which one of them is Sam Worthington when it flashes back to 1965? Mirren (“Red”) is a tough older woman, but is Chastain (“The Tree of Life”) really her counterpart? Chastain does tae-kwon-do – or something in the realm of karate – with a prisoner early on but she gets her face smashed in anyway. She might not remember things in the way they actually happened.
This screenplay is all fiction, but it wants to say something about the Israeli assassin intelligence that was the blood and butter of “Munich” (2005), the striking and powerful Steven Spielberg film with Eric Bana. The Nazi war criminal (Jesper Christensen), now a working gynecologist, is cleverly brought down by being dished out a fake heart attack while he’s on the job, with the fake ambulance to flee from the scene.
The plan is not as smooth as expected. A run-in at a train station transpires, and following this thwarted procedure, the war criminal is taken to a shelter and held for an indefinite amount of time before he can be handed over to an official law enforcement agency. Lamentably, politics get in the way and the Israeli team has to take watch of him for more than a month or until due notice. Like all sociopathic monsters, the war criminal gets inside their heads of the three captors until he gets them turned against each other.
Because the characters become encumbered by lies that last for decades (or into the present), this provides room for plot twists galore. But “The Debt” is a morass of tangled plot points, issues and unfinished business. Alas, it carries on longer than it should.
This particular film was sitting on the shelf since the summer of 2010, but was showcased at the 2010 Toronto film festival. Now it’s 2011 and is finally seeing its (destined to be brief) shining light.
112 Minutes. Rated R.
POLITICAL THRILLERS / SPY GAMES / SUNDAY NIGHT MOVIE YOU DON’T CARE IF YOU FORGET BY MONDAY MORNING
Film Cousins: “Three Days of the Condor” (1975); “The Parallax View” (1974); “Spy Game” (2001); “Body of Lies” (2008).