About once a year Focus Features or some other smaller studio releases an espionage thriller like The Debt. These films are usually crafted well, with a decent enough visual eye, great performances and sometimes gripping story, but almost all of these films get passed over and that’s because they all share the same traits of not really doing anything new for the genre. They make for fun rentals, but sometimes a boring trip to the local cinema. Last year it was The American and while I thought that worked out very well due to the isolated location, slow burn pacing and the always spot on George Clooney, I think The Debt falls much shorter that because it only has its performances to carry the film. The story isn’t anything we haven’t seen done better before and the rest of the cast flexes their muscles and shows us they can still act with the best of ’em, but only two real stars stuck out and even they couldn’t save The Debt from drifting into mediocre.
The story of The Debt bounces around between 1966 and 1997. It centers on a trio of Mossad secret agents who, back in 1966 had a mission to capture and transport a Nazi doctor. You have Rachel (Jessica Chastain, Helen Mirren), Stefan (Marton Csokas, Tom Wilkinson) and David (Sam Worthington, Ciarian Hinds). First names obviously being the younger version and second being the older version, unless you think Helen Mirren can still rock her 20’s. The film starts in 1997, with all of our characters old and living tired lives. Rachel’s daughter has published a book on the events and that seems to bring back some skeletons. The film smoothly transports back to 1966 during a book reading in which Rachel is recalling important events. From this point the bulk of the film takes place in 1966. We are introduced to all three agents and given a brief rundown on the mission. The mission sounds simple enough, but the execution must be done with the utmost precision. Like most thrillers of the genre things don’t go exactly as planned and they are faced with several decisions that come back to haunt them later on in life.
The Debt plays it fairly safe in terms of your usual spy drama. We get good looks at each character, their weaknesses and struggles through the mission as well as several quick clips of them in ass-kicking mode, training in hand to hand combat. The whole mission slowly unfolds in a normal fashion with not much surprise. Like all films before it, The Debt has a neatly packaged little twist at the end to keep everyone engaged, but it’s not much of an achievement if you’ve been paying attention to what has been presented to you.
It wraps up nice, not leaving loose ends or much impact. It just follows the motions of your typical espionage film and never really strays away from that blueprint, which isn’t a horrible blueprint to start with.
Only two things kept me from falling asleep during The Debt, Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington. There performances are great and the connection both characters shared was at times heart wrenching. Whenever they were on the screen, whether it be alone or together, I couldn’t keep my eyes off, but when the film traveled to a more present future, it got dull, dreary and boring. Helen Mirren is a fine actress, but not nearly as engaging as the actress who plays her younger self.
Everyone else is serviceable and above average, but we’ve come to expect a certain level of performance by these actors so it never really feels like their trying too hard in this one. I wouldn’t peg them as just kind of standing there providing a performance, but more as giving a strong performance, but not anything we haven’t grown accustom to. It boggles my mind seeing Helen Mirren as the top billed and head honcho on all the trailers and posters. She does what she always does in the film and that isn’t worthy of being the center of attention, while the two people carrying the film, Chastain and Worthington; get stuck on the bottom of the poster and in the small credits. Those two should be getting the praise for this film and not really anyone else.
I wish the film wouldn’t have bothered bouncing around in time, but rather stuck in the 60’s. That’s where the story matters and gets interesting. When it jumps to ’97 it feels like you’re watching one of those filler mystery shows on Lifetime while folding laundry, nothing captivating or worthy of your full attention. Lucky for us the film spends most of its time in the 60’s with these on-edge characters. The tension and emotion is thick and heavy as the three young protagonists are all struggling with this very important and life defining mission.
The Debt is just an unbalanced film that could have easily been balanced. Edit out the present footage and keep it as a spy thriller in the 60’s and you got yourself a gripping film. They could have even ended it on a depressing note or uplifting note (explained in the film). There was really no reason for the story in 1997, other than to get some big name seasoned actors in the credits, followed by some easy paychecks! The only thing the present story did was cause the feeling of disconnect. You lose that connection and passion you had for the younger characters and it feels like an entirely different film.
There’s enough good in The Debt to warrant a viewing, but too much plain, mediocre dryness to make that viewing worth it at your local megaplex. This one might work as a rental or possibly a side project of editing out several parts and making your own cut of the film! The younger performances are what makes the film and it’s sad to see even a minute wasted on the later versions of the characters. I think it’s safe to say that Jessica Chastain has exploded on the scene; she’s been taking roles left and right and proving her worth. I can’t wait to see what her next few films are going to be because if her performance is as good as the one she delivered in The Debt then we are all in for something special. Sam Worthington is also a star to keep a close eye on. While he usually chooses plain projects I think if the content is challenging enough for him that it will be worth it for the viewers. He really did excellent in The Debt and I’d like to see him take more roles similar to this. He has talent; it just needs to be tapped!
The Debt – 7/10