½*/**** Image A Sound A Extras D+
starring Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Tom Wilkinson
screenplay by Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, based on the Israeli film Ha-Hov
directed by John Madden
by Walter Chaw End-of-year prestige porn so poor in its conception that it was released at the ass-end of summer, former Miramax darling John Madden's The Debt enters into the Holocaust Remembrance sweepstakes and, in the process, demonstrates that probably nothing could slow Jessica Chastain's rising star. Sure enough, she's all that's remotely worthwhile (well, her and Jesper Christensen as the best Nazi doctor since Olivier) in a film that also parades people like Tom Wilkinson and Dame Helen Mirren in embarrassing, compromised aspects. Despsite a couple of elderly "twists," the only thing really surprising about this tale of a Mossad operation gone pear-shaped is that Mirren's hack husband Taylor Hackford didn't direct it--knowing that if he had, at least the action scenes in it, for what they're worth, would've been a good deal tighter. Oh, what a state we're in when we find ourselves wishing that Taylor Hackford had directed something instead of someone else.
Chastain is lovely translator Rachel, involved in her first field operation alongside dashing operative Stephan (Marton Csokas) and, um, also-dashing operative David (Sam Worthington). Their task, and they chose to accept it, is to bring in, alive, evil Mengele stand-in Herr Doktor Bernhardt (Christensen), "The Butcher of Birkenau" and such, meaning that in this ignoble little pot-boiler we get to visit a few sepia photographs of dead concentration-camp prisoners. If it seems distasteful that something as obvious and pandering as The Debt is exhuming these particular graves, well, I'd have to agree. Bernhardt is a gynecologist hiding in plain sight in East Berlin when the operation begins, leading to a few delightfully uncomfortable and probably misogynistic scenes in which Rachel puts her feet in the ol' stirrups for a little tense banter (as if any speculum-augmented banter could be anything but) before wrapping her legs around the old guy and shoving a hypodermic needle in his neck. My guess is that it was worth it. Flash to the framing story as old Rachel (Mirren) and old Stephan (Wilkinson) celebrate the publication of their grown daughter's book feting Rachel's heroism in this mission thirty years past. But lo--why did old David (Ciarán Hinds) throw himself in front of a bus? Honestly, all bets are off once they decide to age Worthington into Hinds and not Csokas into Hinds.
Anyway, it all builds to the worst-planned escape from East Berlin in the history of them (seriously--the 1961 Moskvitch hardtop convertible escape in Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three was better-planned), and we see two versions of history before discovering, to the surprise of only the very young and the deaf/blind/mute, that the Butcher is alive and well and living in the Ukraine! Luckily Rachel also speaks Ukrainian, because old Rachel, in the interests of righting an old DEBT (see what I did there?), goes to visit the decrepit Butcher in his nursing home in direct betrayal of everything she's reasonably believed for the rest of the picture. So the question is, if The Debt is about doing the right thing no matter the personal cost, how is what Rachel wants to do actually the right thing? Wouldn't the better film have been about the fluidity of history and the slipperiness of morality? Instead, what we get is an old-people wrestling match, prefaced by a gesture so meaningless and hurtful that the only victim of it is the one innocent in this whole mess, Rachel's bastard daughter Sarah (Romi Aboulafia). The ending is so obviously tacked-on and uncomfortable, in fact, that damned if I didn't catch a genuine tear in Mirren's eye lamenting a legendary stage-and-screen career that has climaxed in two bad-ass secret agent roles (here and in RED) destined to provoke laughs, if not played for them.
The Debt falls in that old tradition of mashing a prestigious hot-button topic together with some romance and a dash of fisticuffs in the hope that something Casablanca-like sticks. It hires a filmmaker who once directed an undeserved Best Picture winner, installs honoured performers in thankless and miscast roles, mines a few hot young stars (where's Michael Fassbender?) for their heat (though Worthington is only room-temperature after Clash of the Titans and Terminator: Salvation), and spends over two hours congratulating itself for the stateliness and reserve of its presentation. Where The Debt fails is in understanding that movies with Cold War antagonists (or worse, WWII antagonists) only really attach when they're done with wry self-knowledge (Captain America) and that for as desperate as audiences this time of year claim to be for "good" movies, they know when something sucks, even if they're not always able to articulate why. It's a problem, you'll agree, when the only moment of the picture that's engaging in any way has our dashing Jewish heroes trying to force-feed porridge to their miserable old Nazi douchebag captive. Palliative Care: The Movie. Now that's entertainment.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers The Debt docks on Blu-ray in a magnificent 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. Light, somewhat fluctuant grain dances on the surface of a razor-sharp image; the picture was shot in Super35 by Kick-Ass DP Ben Davis, here employing a comparatively subdued palette that will probably scream "generic early-'10s thriller" even more loudly in ten years than it does now. (The filmmakers seem to want to emulate the bloodless palette you get from the Red One HiDef camera, making the choice to shoot on film an ironic one.) Blacks vacillate between deep and sooty, but they're haziest in the extended flashbacks, and so I'm suggesting this was by design. The accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is pretty spectacular, particularly in the way it manages dialogue against effects and Thomas Newman's pulsating score. Dynamic range is excellent, in other words, and the mix itself is significantly more nuanced than, say, The Debt's screenplay, or its performances.
Outside the feature-length commentary by director John Madden and producer Kris Thykier, extras are slim in typical Focus Features fashion. Madden-ing is more like it: The director spends an agonizing amount of time recapitulating the plot of The Debt, though he occasionally prompts Thykier to discuss the challenges inherent in transforming the age and identity of various European locales. Three featurettes--"A Look Inside The Debt" (3 mins., HD), "Every Secret Has a Price: Helen Mirren in The Debt," and "The Berlin Affair: The Triangle at the Center of The Debt" (2 mins., HD)--are like remixes of the same five soundbites and paper-thin EPKs besides. About the only thing I took from them is that Mirren and Jessica Chastain collaborated on some mannerisms that would ostensibly link their disparate portrayals of Rachel Singer. We received Alliance's Canadian release of the Universal platter for review, which is identical save startup trailers for The Iron Lady, The Guard, The Ides of March, and Alliance's own Blu-ray slate. Originally published: December 5, 2011.