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The Debt – Film Review

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The Debt - Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington
Secret agents disembark: Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas) and David Peretz (Sam Worthington) © 2011 Focus Features

Whatever you do, don’t read anyone else’s review of The Debt, or any related features or interviews, if you have any desire to see the movie. And you definitely should want to see it, because this is one of the most suspenseful, smart, well-directed and best acted films of the year.

Unfortunately, many reviewers and entertainment writers are guaranteed to spoil some (if not all) of The Debt‘s secrets and plot twists. Some of those blabbermouths are merely careless. Too many others seem to take malicious pleasure in ruining the surprises offered by anything that’s not completely predictable. The worst of these embarrassments to my noble profession are critics who think they’re being clever about the crime, such as a certain reprehensible reprobate who spoiled the punchline of The Sixth Sense by comparing it to another movie with similar story elements.

This review, however, contains nothing that will make you curse my name. Well, not for giving away too much about the movie, anyway.

Here’s the no-spoilers set-up: In 1997 Tel Aviv, long-retired Mossad agent Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) attends the launch party for a new book written by her adult daughter about mom’s most spectacular case. The two other members of Rachel’s former undercover team are ex-husband Stephan (Tom Wilkinson), who has risen in the ranks, and the haggardly morose David (Ciarán Hinds), who seems haunted and distracted when he is picked up for apparent questioning by one of Wilkinson’s men elsewhere in town.

The Debt - Ciara?n Hinds and Helen Mirren
Retired secret agents David Peretz (Ciara?n Hinds) and Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) © 2011 Focus Features

Most of the movie is an extended flashback devoted to the trio’s bookworthy mission in 1965 East Berlin, where they were dispatched to capture former Nazi “Surgeon of Birkenau” Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen). The Vogel character essentially is Josef Mengele with a different name. Vogel’s concentration camp medical crimes are said to include amputations, sewing children together and attempts to change eye color with injections, acts for which Mengele was notorious.

Played with nervous determination by Jessica Chastain in the 1965 segment, Rachel reveals to that era’s macho-belligerent Stephan (Marton Csokas) and quietly withdrawn David (Sam Worthington) that this is her first field assignment. The sexual tension, accompanying resentments and cabin-fever frustrations that develop among them in the dismal flat they share are compounded by an oppressive sense of Cold War paranoia.

Because ex-Nazi Vogel is now working in the city as a gynecologist under a new name, Rebecca makes a series of appointments with him under the pretense that she needs to be treated for infertility. In Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman getting his teeth drilled by an ex-Nazi dentist was intense. But Rachel wearing only a hospital gown, with her feet up in stirrups and a war criminal poking around between her legs, definitely ups the ante on “uncomfortable.”

When the day finally comes to put their Mission: Impossible-style scheme in place to abduct Vogel and spirit him to Israel for trial, edge-of-your-seat problems naturally arise. Christensen is excellent as the insidiously manipulative Vogel, one minute trying to win sympathy for himself and the next minute gloating about how easy it was to exterminate Jews in the gas chambers.

In the 1997 segment, Mirren’s older and tougher Rachel is forced to confront some not-so-praiseworthy aspects of that 1965 mission. She knows there’s a debt she owes that may be impossible to repay, but she’s the only one who can do so.

Director John Madden keeps things classy and dead serious throughout. There’s not a single second of comic relief in the very adult screenplay by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan (based on the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov written by Assaf Bernstein and Ido Rosenblum).

Also, The Debt is one of those incredibly rare movies that manages to benefit from a flashback structure. Most movies that start in the present and then jump back in time are the cinematic equivalent of forcing a reader to start with the last chapter of a book before going to page one. Those screenplays seem to be saying, “Here’s everything that’s going to happen. Now sit back, don’t worry about being shocked by anything unexpected, and wait two hours for us to get back to what you know is coming.”

Not this time. In The Debt, surprises keep arriving even when you think everything is settled and you know what’s in store.

So for your own good, don’t read another word about this movie from anyone else, anywhere, before you see it. Trust me on this. I’m a professional.

[Rating:4.5]