Stories are linear. Part of what gives them their power is that we jettison the details that are distracting or unimportant. But real life is messy. That may not be as compelling, but is honest. As we are told in “The Man Who Shots Liberty Valance,” “When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.” And sometimes the legend becomes the truth.
That is the story of “The Debt.” It begins in 1997, when a woman is celebrating the publication of her book, which tells the story of her parents’ daring capture of a Nazi war criminal named Vogel in East Germany three decades before. Her parents, now divorced, are Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) and Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkenson). Rachel still has a scar on her cheek from the prisoner’s attack on her when he tried to escape. She shot him to keep him from getting away.
Then we go back to the 1960’s, when Rachel (Jessica Chastain) passes through the Berlin Wall on her first assignment as a Mossad agent. The man they are looking for was responsible for atrocities that were a grotesque version of medical experiments during the war. Now he is a gynecologist under the name Bernhardt (the Danish actor Jesper Christensen), and Rachel is assigned to visit him as a patient, posing as the wife of another agent, David Peretz (Sam Worthington), under the direction of their leader, Stephan (Marton Csokas). The first time through, we saw the story they told. Now we see what really happened, and then we will see how the three of them, in their 60’s, finish the story.
It is a tense thriller with some action and a lot of suspense, especially the war of nerves as Bernhardt and the three young agents are stuck in a grimy apartment for days, essentially prisoners of each other. The young agents are rattled by Vogel’s coolness and manipulation. And then, decades later, their story starts to unravel and they have to finish what they started.
The movie works very well as a thriller that benefits from some ambitious aspirations and superb performances from Christensen, Wilkenson, and Mirren. But it spins out of control in the last 20 minutes, sacrificing story for action and losing much of its gritty momentum.
Rated R for some violence and language
Parents should know that the theme of this film is about agents tracking down a Nazi war criminal and it includes discussion of Holocaust atrocities, characters in peril, injured and killed, some graphic images, sexual references and a non-explicit situation.
Family discussion: How were the different personalities of the three characters reflected in their initial decision about their report? In their choices over the following decades?
If you like this, try: “Munich” and “Keeper of the Flame”