The less you know about The Debt the better. So I will not give anything too big or even small away. Rachel (Helen Mirren), Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) and David (Ciarán Hinds) are veteran spies who have been honored for a mission they undertook back in 1966. The trio, portrayed respectively in their younger lives by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas, and Sam Worthington, tracked down a Nazi war criminal, Vogel (Jesper Christensen), in East Berlin. At great risk, they accomplished their mission. Or did they, really? That is all I am going to say. I walked in pretty cold and that is the best way to see this movie. Let the story unfold on its own.
The Debt offers a fascinating look into the real world and trade craft of espionage. It would be a very good movie if that’s all it did, because it does it very well – agent techniques, the cat and mouse game between spies and police, unexpected twists and turns. The movie adds another dimension to its characters, however, that was a big surprise to me – a very pleasant and unexpected surprise.
The movie puts great focus on the dynamic between the three main characters, on whom a lifetime of big stakes situations, lies and deceit and omnipresent stress have taken their psychological toll. The main characters live in the external pressure cooker of undercover lives in enemy territory added to the self-imposed pressure that comes along with their own sense of duty to mission and country. The pressure is relentless and only builds as the story advances in time and these veteran spies have to deal with their past. The characters also have to deal with moral conflict and emotional turmoil. Along with a compelling spy story, The Debt progresses into adeep character study – something I wasn’t expecting. Most of that tuff is handeled well.
The Debt is a thriller that gets you pumped up from the start, but it really engrosses you as the narrative pulls you into the inner lives of the main characters. You’re offered a unique insight into how they deal with the lies they have to live with. You’re ushered through a door into each of the characters’ inner worlds. This said, however, the ending was a little bit of a letdown for me. I was fine with it, but they missed an opportunity to make this movie even better. It lacked the big punch I wanted the ending to have. It felt like a “safe” ending.
The movie was paced extremely well. It switches back and forth between scenes and between past and present at just the right times. Many similar films have done this in a way that detracts from the pace and the narrative. In this case, the cuts and flashbacks don’t detract from the story at all. To the contrary, they pull you deeper into the fascinating lives unfolding before you. The problem with most “realistic” spy movies is that reality is difficult to portray in a way that isn’t boring. Spy movies that aren’t constrained by reality, more often than not, degrade into a too predictable sequence of action, events and special effects. This is one of the very few realistic spy movies that I’ve seen that kept my interest from start to finish. This has a lot to do with the characters. There are 6 characters we get to know – the younger versions of the three spies and their older counterparts. Each character is developed well and given enough screen time so that we grow to care about them. The script isn’t perfect, but it manages to give these characters depth and put them in great situations that raise some major issues. There’s a love triangle woven into the plot. I normally hate this in a movie like this because it almost always comes across as formulaic and contrived – thrown in for “the adult” audience. But I was fine with it here. It felt like it fit in.
The acting is excellent from everyone. Sam Worthington actually gives a good performance here. He isn’t phenomenal or anything, but he still gives his best performance to date. It’s been the smaller movies where Worthington has acted better. Jessica Chastain is great in her role and she actually makes a good younger Helen Mirren. Chastain has been in a lot of movies this year. She really embodies the character. Marton Csokas, whom I have never been that impressed with, impresses me here. Jesper Christensen steals the show when he’s on screen. This guy seems nice when you first meet him. From the opening scene of the movie, you already know he’s a Nazi war criminal, but Christensen’s performance makes you question whether this guy is really guilty of the things he’s accused of. Man, does he turn the tables fast! He is chilling, manipulative and gives a hell of a great performance. Of course, Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciaran Hinds are all great, as well.
Finally, I got to see a spy movie that I’ve been waiting for. After seeing Spy Kids 4and Columbiana, I was dreading another spy movie. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, although a lot better than those two, was never engaging in any way. The Debt has pretty much everything. It has action done well. It has compelling characters. It deals with the psychological problems presented by a life of spying. It enthralled with interesting dialog that kept me glued to the screen and listening intently. It has great action and tension that kept me on the edge of my seat. This movie isn’t perfect and if you nitpick you can find flaws here and there. But this is perfect prescription if you’re longing for an intelligent and satisfying spy thriller. It’s the best movie in its genre to come along in a long while and well worth the viewing.