The Debt has a title that isn't clearly explained, as it shouldn't be. Is it reckoning for a monster doctor who murdered and tortured Jews in a concentration camp? Maybe it's the payback to heritage pledged by three Mossad secret agents assigned to track down the war criminal. Or perhaps it is the truth about the mission, the lies and passion, that hasn't received its due for 30 years.
Director John Madden offers each of those debts for your consideration, deftly moving between the mission's end in 1966 and publication of a book about the agents' exploits, written by the daughter of the woman credited with killing Dieter Vogel, the infamous Surgeon of Birkenau. She is Rachel Singer, carrying an L-shaped scar on her cheek as a reminder of the mission.
We see the injury happen in a tense sequence starring Jessica Chastain as the young Rachel, and most of the movie remains in her time frame. Helen Mirren plays Rachel in retirement, clearly uneasy with the attention she and the book are receiving. Another agent is taking it much harder. David Peretz (Ciaran Hinds) steps in front of a bus to avoid the celebration. The third, Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) is Rachel's ex-husband and troubled for reasons that eventually weave into clarity.
Before that happens, The Debt settles into the '60s, with Chastain, Sam Worthington (young David) and Marton Csokas (young Stephan) meeting, training and plotting the capture of Vogel (Jesper Christensen), now living in Soviet occupied Berlin under the guise of a gynecologist. That's where Rachel figures in; she can get close to him, with examining room sessions recalling the suspense of Laurence Olivier's Nazi dentist in Marathon Man.
As the noose tightens, tension among the agents increases. A triangle evolves but not too romantically. More like cabin fever lust while laying low in a rundown apartment. Madden occasionally flips forward in time, adding hindsight textures to these relationships before the older versions take over the final third of the movie. The Debt is a smartly constructed thriller running on separate tracks then converging to raise the stakes.
Like any revenge story, a despicable villain is a must. The Debt has one in Vogel, whose stirrups-side manner is chilling since we know who he is. When captured, Vogel turns cunning, taunting the agents with whatever he learns or deduces about them. Christensen plays him with Lecter-like intensity; the unsettling calmness of someone capable of anything.
The Debt also provides another reason to consider Chastain among the next generation of great actors. Already this summer we've seen her play an idyllic mother in The Tree of Life, a comical bombshell in The Help, and now an intelligent action hero with a heart. Toss in her sexy-strange performance in Al Pacino's Wilde Salome, and the buzz from Cannes for Take Shelter (both coming later this year), and Chastain appears poised to eventually share more than a role with an Oscar winner like Mirren.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.