Film Review: The Debt

Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington in The Debt
Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington in The Debt - © Focus Features
Reviewed by Ian Forbes, Sobering Conclusion

Getting a midweek jump on its cinematic competition, The Debt is yet another recent foreign film to be remade for English-speaking-only countries.

Based on the 2007 Israeli film, Ha-Hov, the story concerns a trio of Mossad agents tasked with bringing a Nazi war criminal back to Israel to stand trial for crimes committed during the Holocaust. It flitters back and forth between 1966 and 1997, weaving a tale of espionage and secrets that will feel a bit predictable to fans of the genre but is sure to surprise more casual filmgoers.

What works best, and worst, for The Debt is its cast. Jessica Chastain (coming off a terrific performance in The Tree of Life), Martin Csokas, and Sam Worthington play the younger versions of Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds (respectively). All of them are terrific actors and perform their parts quite well. What makes this also the worst element then? Let’s play a little game, shall we?

Close your eyes – wait … bad idea for a text-based review. Look at the following pictures:

Martin Csokas
Sam Worthington
Ciarán Hinds
Tom Wilkinson

If you were going to match up the actors to play the same character but at different ages, which way would you go?

A. Worthington – Wilkinson, Csokas – Hinds
B. Worthington – Hinds, Csokas – Wilkinson
C. Who cares? Get on with the review.
D. Who cares? It’s called suspension of disbelief.

As long as you didn’t answer “B”, you can postpone that eye exam another month. In all seriousness, it was extremely distracting to keep reminding myself which actors matched up because it went against their physical appearances. This is made more baffling by how obvious it should have been to switch Wilkinson and Hinds’ casting. Both are superb actors who can easily play either character. Unless there was some intense pre-casting game of rock-paper-scissors that’s going to make the DVD extras, this choice made very little sense.

Aside from that, the film unfolds as one might expect. Director John Madden (no, not the guy who rode a bus to NFL games coast to coast) chose to start the film with a pivotal scene and build back up to it, all while shuffling past and present scenes as is de rigueur these days. It’s a stylistic choice and will work fine for part of the audience while seeming off-putting to the rest (read: me). Madden could just have easily told the story linearly but hey, what do I know? I’m a film critic.

One casualty of going back and forth in time is a more difficult ability to gauge whether the film is coming to an end or not. While the runtime is not egregious, at 1 hour, 54 minutes, the last act seems to come right about when it would feel right to run the credits and makes those movie seats just that much more noticeably uncomfortable.

Overall, the film does what it sets out to do. It very much feels a bit like Munich mashed up with an episode of The Unit but the strength of the actors makes the ride more than palatable. Of course, because the original is only 4 years old, The Debt still falls into the category of ‘why in the hell are you remaking this – oh wait, that’s right, Americans won’t read subtitles’ but like bad 3D conversions, I doubt this trend will be stopping anytime soon.

Grade: C+

The Debt hit theaters on August 31, 2011 and is rated R for some violence and language.

More on The Debt:
Photo gallery
Trailer, news and cast list

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