By Joshua Madden
A great number of films have attempted to document Israel’s struggle for recognition and statehood, but “The Debt” goes about this in an interesting way: by focusing not on Israel’s efforts to eliminate its current enemies, but its effort to bring Holocaust architects to justice.
The story follows Rachel (who is portrayed by Jessica Chastain as a younger woman and Helen Mirren as an older one) who is assigned to help capture Dr. Vogel (Jesper Christensen, who is best known for portraying Mr. White in the recent “James Bond” films) and bring him to trial in Israel.
Working alongside Rachel is David (who is portrayed as a young man by Sam Worthington and as an older man by Cirrán Hinds) and Stefan (who is portrayed as a young man by Marton Csokas and by Tom Wilkinson as an older man).
If you’re a little confused, that’s understandable. The story jumps back and forth between 1966 and 1997, so we see all of the main characters as both young agents in the field and older citizens trying to justify their actions. It’s not actually as hard to follow as it might seem — the transitions between the two decades are well done and easy to keep up with.
The only real problem is that many people have argued that the casting decisions make for some awkward links between characters, saying that perhaps the older versions of David and Stefan should have been cast differently.
I think there is some validity to this claim, but overall, it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the film, partially because the performances from the younger actors are simply so good.
Sam Worthington is perhaps best known for his work in the smash hit “Avatar,” although that’s too bad because he is a much more talented actor than he revealed in that film.
His previous film “Terminator: Salvation,” oddly enough, might have actually been Worthington’s best performance up until “The Debt” was released, but in “The Debt” he is able to create a character that is, in many ways, the emotional center of the film. As an audience member, I was able to empathize with his struggles in a way I wouldn’t have expected.
Chastain is arguably the surprise star of the film and, in my opinion, outshined Helen Mirren while sharing the same role. That’s not to say that Mirren did a bad job — quite the contrary, her performance was also excellent — but Chastain simply created a character that worked for the film.
After having seen “The Debt,” I will be shocked if Chastain does not turn out to be a major star in her own right. This film gave her the opportunity to shine and she did.
I felt that Cirrán Hinds gave the strongest performance out of the older trio in the cast, but that’s partially because his character is arguably given more to do in this plot line than Wilkinson’s. Hinds, however, rises to the occasion and provides the best link between the two decades of any of the actors.
The major issue this film never seems to overcome is the older version of the characters always feel a little less relevant to the overall plot than the makers of the film probably intended. The structure allows for a connection between the two plotlines that I didn’t see coming, but it struggles to find a balance when figuring out how to conclude the two storylines in a satisfying way.
It’s a small issue for a film that does such a good job of remaining tense, but it is something that prevents “The Debt” from being comparable to “Munich” in quality.
Film buffs will inevitably compare “The Debt” to “Munich” because of the similarities in subject matter, but the two films are so different — and “Munich” is such a masterpiece — that it’s difficult to compare the two in any meaningful way.
The only thing worth saying about the inevitable comparisons that will be made is “The Debt” is a worthy entry to the genre encompassing “Munich”. It is a terrific exploration of Israeli identity and revenge, but it does have its shortcomings.
If “The Debt” had been able to more aptly balance the various aspects of its own plot, it would have been a masterpiece. As it stands, it’s still a very good film, just not perfect, which is why I’m awarding it four stars out of five.
Reviews in the Lariat represent only the viewpoint of the reviewer and do not necessarily represent those of the rest of the staff. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.