Friday, October 7, 2011

The Debt

Avenging The Past Through A Jagged, Tortured Present

Helen Mirren as Mossad operative Rachel Singer in John Madden's "The Debt". 
Focus Features/Laurie Sparham

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, October 7, 2011

A recent release still in theaters, "
The Debt" is a well-intended thriller that has its priorities scattered.  John Madden's choppy film is unsure of what it wants to be as it vacillates between thriller, romance and espionage revenge drama.  Based on an Israeli film ("Ha-Hov" aka The Debt) released just four years ago, "The Debt" is top-heavy, boasting an eclectic though miscast group of international actors.

Helen Mirren, taut, expressive and powerful here, headlines "The Debt" as Rachel Singer, the leader of a Mossad spy operation tracking down a still-roaming Nazi criminal Dieter Vogel, nicknamed the Butcher Of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen) who murdered many including members of her family.

Filmed in Budapest, the United Kingdom and Tel Aviv, "The Debt" flashes back and forward between the 1960s and the present as Jessica Chastain plays the younger Rachel.  Ms. Chastain's fellow youthful Mossad cohorts are Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas ("The Tree").  The trio track the elusive unrepentant killer Vogel but along the way confront moral and ethical obstacles that become a greater challenge than the mission itself.

Mr. Madden ("Shakespeare In Love") demonstrates a know-how when mining the drama that dilemma and irony are made of.
  He earnestly explores whether the appetite for justice becomes irrelevant or superfluous when the means to obtaining it are blurred by extralegal measures or extreme violence.  He also offers a somewhat tentative look at the complexity of feelings, some of those romantic, others fraternal. 

For a while "The Debt" has some currency, yet the director and his cast of talented performers take on the film's intriguing issues and premises only intermittently, and Mr. Madden's wayward directorial flourishes obstruct what could have been a compelling drama.  Instead, "The Debt" is a self-distracting drama and an irritating experience.  Stylistically unsettled and restless, "The Debt" has unexpected edits in places that remove the viewer from it.  The result is a forced atmosphere that feels hollow.  Style, not the film's principal villain, is the true enemy and obstacle for Mr. Madden in "The Debt", and the schizophrenic tonal shifts obstruct the path of a story unevenly written and developed by "Watchmen" and "X-Men: First Class" director Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan. 

As for the rest of the cast, Ciarán Hinds and Tom Wilkinson are remarkably ineffectual as older versions of Mr. Worthington and Mr. Csokas's characters respectively, which, for actors of their high caliber is a first.  To be fair, it's more that both veteran actors are casualties of a film that trafficks in glossy art-house schlock, trapped in a film that hardly deserves their talents.  As such they look oddly out of place, as if they don't know what to do with themselves. 

"The Debt", which on paper promises much, wants to be intrepid and high-minded but winds up being neither. 

Furthermore, the brunette-haired Ms. Chastain-as-Rachel is an unintended source of actress-identity syndrome in "The Debt".
  I spent the entire two hours and 14 minutes of this jagged ordeal trying to determine whether I was watching Claire Danes or Ms. Chastain as the younger Rachel Singer.  (In an admitted state of profound ignorance, I sincerely hadn't known of Ms. Chastain's involvement, or must have blinked too much, too fast or too hard at the credits.)  And when you find yourself constantly thinking about which actor it is you are watching throughout a movie, let alone a thriller whose goal it is to absorb and engage you, that's usually not a good sign.

All in all, "The Debt" is a self-conscious work that tries to do far too much with way too little.  Overcompensations are made for a story that doesn't have the staying power it should, and ultimately the drama wanes and disappears into a meaningless ether.  "The Debt" opened right at the unofficial end of the summer season (on August 31), and it is one of the summer's (if not the year's) most disappointing films.  I had seen this film back in July and have only just thought back to how unconvincing a vision it was.  I felt isolated by it and repelled by its expected but strong violence.

Mr. Madden clearly wants to shake things up but instead of making sure his film was first on solid footing he vigorously shook up "The Debt" like a washing machine spin cycle when the material needed a more careful, discerning focus.  Rather than being a powerful film that compels, "The Debt" is a gratuitous, thunderous mess.  Sputtering to the finish line it exhausts, overwrought and out of gas.

With: Romi Aboulafia, Brigitte Kren.

"The Debt" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some language and violence.  The film's running time is two hours and fourteen minutes. 

COPYRIGHT 2011.  POPCORNREEL.COM.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.                Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW