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The Debt

You’re familiar with the twist ending.   How about the twist in the middle?  That’s not something you see very often.  And “The Debt” shows why.

This is a film about three Mossad agents on the track of a notorious Nazi killer – the Surgeon of Birkenau.   It’s 1966, and they’ve tracked him to East Berlin. The agents are Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas.   They are all young and in over their heads, but highly motivated by personal loss.  The Holocaust wasn’t that long ago.

The three shack up near their target and wait for a plan to materialize from their superiors.  Things heat up between them, as both men vy for Chastain’s affections.  Worthington is silent, idealistic, and intense.  Csokas is smooth and calculating.  She falls for one, but sleeps with the other.  I won’t tell you why, and the film barely will, either.  I wish we had more time to spend with these characters; or rather, I wish they were more sharply drawn.  The actors are doing sufficient work, but there’s just not much to work with.

That’s only one of the problems with the script.  The main problem, as I mentioned above, is that it plays all its cards before the third act.   Things are happening, from the beginning, in flashback; in the outer layer Chastain has aged into Helen Mirren, and her daughter is about to publish a book about how she killed the Surgeon of Birkenau.  But things are not quite what they seem, or, at least, the official account of what happened isn’t quite right.  In the final act, Mirren sets out to make the two match up better (have I mentioned how much I HATE trying to write about movies with surprise twists?  It’s like talking through clenched teeth) and the plot goes really slack.  The conclusion feels foregone.  This film was over a long time ago.  With a bit of finagling and some sleight of hand, the two storylines could’ve played out in parallel, and the twist could’ve come at the end.  That would’ve have been a much more complex, and probably superior, film.

It has plenty of charm, and tension, in its first two acts.  Director John Madden clearly owes a debt to Steven Spielberg’s “Munich;” most notably in the mise-en-scene of late ’60s Iron Curtain big cities.  That film is superior to this one, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it.  For about two-thirds of the way, I thought this was going to be one of the best films of 2011.  But the third act is a big letdown.  “The Debt” is good, not great.

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