A thriller minus the thrills

Michael Phillips | Boulder Weekly

When Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Ciaran Hinds and this year’s breakout actress, Jessica Chastain of The Tree of Life and The Help, can’t make much out of a political thriller, you know something’s off with both the political and the thriller components.

A chaotic remake of the 2007 Israeli drama Ha-Hov, director John Madden’s The Debt contains enough narrative stuffing for two or three separate pictures or a six-hour miniseries. While it’s possible and even thrilling to see comparably loaded narratives succeed in the movies (Incendies most recently and vividly), it is not easy. The Debt toggles between two time sequences. In 1997, three veterans of Mossad, Israel’s secret service, now revered as national heroes, are forced to revisit the truth behind their roughest assignment when the daughter of the agent played by Mirren publishes a book about her mother and what happened in 1965-1966 in East Berlin. This is the movie’s primary time and locale.

Chastain plays the Mirren character as a young agent, joining fellow Mossad agents played by Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington in the abduction of a Josef Mengele-like Nazi war criminal ( Jesper Christensen, straight from the Conrad Veidt school of theatrical villainy). How this mission plays out among the Mossad trio becomes a tangle of romantic tensions and warring instincts. How it plays out for the audience becomes a matter of strategically withheld information that feels a little cheap.

Decades later, Mirren’s Rachel finds herself pulled back in for one last assignment to tie up an inhuman loose end and The Debt strains to find the right mixture of Holocaust revenge melodrama and moral reckoning. Heaven knows the actors are capable. In the mid-’60s East Berlin scenes, largely confined to one apartment, Chastain and her comrades are stuck with some awfully hoary writing, as their insidious Nazi quarry preys upon their vulnerabilities. Director Madden vacillates between treating the issues and historical context of The Debt seriously, and as the story demands, as pure, heavy-handed pulp.

The cast does what it can in the service of this assignment. But some jobs simply resist satisfying completion.

—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com