Judge Gordon Sullivan only has sideways flashes to the present.
Vengeance comes at a price.
As those who passed high school history recall, World War II ended with VJ Day on August 14, 1945 (or August 15, 1945 if you take into account time zone differences). If you really want to push it, at least for Americans, the aftermath could include the Nuremberg trials, which take us up through 1946. That's pretty much where it stops for America, as Ike's ascendency, the Cold War, and the conflict in Korea took up our cultural imagination. However, the state of Israel was founded in 1948, and the Jews who populated the newly created state did not so quickly turn to other concerns. Israel's civil intelligence service, Mossad (roughly equivalent to our CIA), undertook various actions to find outstanding Nazi war criminals, including the capture and execution of Adolf Eichmann in 1960. Although many Americans are unlikely to know much about Mossad before turning to The Debt (Blu-ray), intelligence operations seem to be inherently interesting and it's hard to argue with Nazis as bad guys. However, a worthy cast and an interesting historical moment are overshadowed by structural flaws in the plot.
Facts of the Case
Back in 1966, three Mossad agents (played by Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life; Sam Worthington, Avatar; and Marton Csokas, The Bourne Supremacy) captured a former Nazi, the Surgeon of Birkenau. However, he tried to escape and was killed by Rachel. Now it is 1997, and the three characters (now played by Helen Mirren, Red; Chiaran Hinds, There Will be Blood; and Tom Wilkinson, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) have to face up to the consequences of their action.
There are few things more disappointing than a good film that could have been great. That's exactly what's wrong with The Debt. It has some fantastic moments, it's well-directed and well-acted, and its main story is highly compelling. However, two key problems keep it from living up to its potential.
The first big problem is the film's casting. For once this isn't a problem of acting, but one of looks. The film relies on flashbacks to fill the audience in on what happened in 1966. While both the younger and older groups of actors are perfectly cast for their roles, they simply don't match. I think Helen Mirren was a beautiful young woman, as is Jessica Chastain, but it's difficult to believe that they're related, let alone the same person. In this case it's pretty easy, since their character is the only central female role. The problem is only compounded with the two male leads. We've supposed to believe that the hunky Sam Worthington grows up to look like the slightly rumpled Chiaran Hinds? Or that Marton Csokas, with his cover-model Hungarian looks, grows up to be the uber-British Wilkinson? I don't mind the implausibility of it so much; the real problem is that it is simply confusing in the beginning. Before we really have a chance to learn character names and cement relationships (which are complicated throughout the film), we switch back and forth in time. Because the older and younger actors look nothing alike, this is difficult. As an audience member, I was confused during those crucial establishing moments while trying to piece together who was whom so I could get emotionally invested in the situation.
The second problem with The Debt is the flashback structure. We initially get the sanitized version of what happened in 1966 before we discover (in 1997) that it's not the whole truth. We then see an extended flashback where we learn what really happened. Those actions have consequences in 1997 that we then see play out. It's unnecessarily confusing, and the 1966 moments are the more interesting by far. Those characters are young and placed in an inherently tense situation, and the pressure is really on. If the film had been just their story then it would have succeeded with no problem. Instead, the more recent material caps off the film, tarnishing the good will the flashback sequences had built up. Sure, the 1997 moments offer us Helen Mirren being a bad-ass, but these moments are much less dramatically interesting and feel like reaching for a film that feels so natural during the past sequences.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Don't get me wrong, Helen Mirren is a bad-ass, and she's only one of the six excellent performances here. All three of the 1966 actors are perfectly cast. I was amazed that Worthington, who up until now has played more sci-fi action roles than pure drama, pulled off a complex and sympathetic David. In contrast, Csokas plays Stephen as a bit of a jerk and the contrast between his good looks and overbearing personality make for good drama. The center of the film, though, is Jessica Chastain as Rachel. She has to undergo a number of indignities to get close to the Surgeon before they kidnap him and her emotional journey while doing so is simply amazing. Between The Debt, The Help, and The Tree of Life, she's got a bright future come awards season.
Despite the film's structural flaws, the 1966 material is wonderful. The trio has chemistry, their mission is compelling, and the tension is allowed to build slowly and naturally. If the 1997 material had been short bumpers to pad out 70 minutes of 1966 material, this film would so much better. As it is, the lackluster ending can't erase the fact that the flashbacks at the core of the film are wonderfully done.
This Blu-ray is also pretty solid, but like the film has a few flaws. Generally the 2.40:1 VC-1 encoded transfer is okay, with good color saturation and consistent black levels. However, much of the film looks soft and sometimes a bit smeary. Some of that is probably down to digital effects used to give the film its "vintage" look, but some of it is probably the fault of the transfer as well. That means detail isn't nearly as strong as we'd expect from a contemporary film. The DTS-HD soundtrack, however, is a knockout. A couple of key scenes depend on the sound of dripping water, and the clarity and directionality of small sounds like that is impressive. Dialogue is kept clean and clear as well.
Extras start with a commentary by director John Madden. He gives out some interesting production stories, but he's solo and there's a good amount of time he doesn't fill. We also get three featurettes that total less than 10 minutes. It's a bit disappointing that we don't get a bit more about Mossad and its Nazi-hunting history.
The Debt is a good film hampered by the feeling that it could have been great. Not even some excellent performances and a compelling story can save the film from its regrettable choice to spend so much time in present instead of the more interesting past. This is a film that is worth seeing, and the fact that there are no compelling extras means that a rental is about the best recommendation it's going to get.
Guilty of failing to live up to its potential.
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