Movie Review: The Debt

By Stephen Rebello

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Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds star in this violent, morally complex thriller that centers around Mossad secret agents.


Director: John Madden Rating: R Studio: Pioneer Pictures

The Debt is a rarity among contemporary thrillers. It’s an absorbing, violent, well-acted, morally complex thriller about the terrible cost grownups can pay for doing very wrong things for very right reasons.

Directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and adapted by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan from the Israeli film Ha-Hov (written by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum), The Debt is almost like two movies: one set in Israel in 1997, the other in Germany, 1966. The acting powerhouse trio of Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds play well-respected, heroic Mossad agents harboring a nasty secret harking back to their hunting down a Nazi war criminal in East Berlin during the ‘60s. Then, there are their impassioned, righteously angry younger selves, very well played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington. Each has intensely personal, tangled connections to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Madden’s direction is sure and strong here and he and the blisteringly focused Chastain (who rises to the terrifying task of playing the young Mirren, whom she does not resemble) work well together. There's an especially taut set piece involving Chastain bravely putting her most intimate self into the hands of a gynecologist (a superb Jesper Christensen) who may be a desperately sick, Mengele-like Nazi butcher. Those moments hark back to squirm-inducing moments in dentist’s chairs in Hitchcock’s 1934 spy thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much and a similar scene in Marathon Man in 1976. Unfortunately, The Debt veers off course in its last third, turning into a revenge-chase thriller full of plot twists and action sequences that, though expertly filmed and aimed at Bourne Identity audiences, simplifies and trivializes the strong, complicated stuff that’s come before. And it could have been so much more.

About the Author

Playboy Contributing Editor Stephen Rebello has written many Playboy Interview and 20 Questions features. He is the author of such books as the notorious Bad Movies We Love (with Edward Margulies) and Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the latter of which has inspired a dramatic feature film set for production in 2012. His most recent Playboy Interviews include Josh Brolin and Cameron Diaz.


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