Built rather tenuously around the social implications that spring from the concept of indebtedness, Payback overcomes its juggling of multiple nonfiction narratives through director Jennifer Baichwal's capture of fleeting, significant moments rather than via her often unwieldy ambition. A continent-hopping documentary derived from essays by Margaret Atwood, the film finds two of its four incarnations of debt in abuses by modern capitalism: the BP oil spill's enormous damage to the Gulf Coast's estuaries and other marine habitats, and a battle by a coalition of migrant workers in a Florida village to win rights and accountability from the agribusiness giant Pacific Tomato Growers. The remaining strands take up crime and the uncertain proportions of punishment. Incarceration's toll is dissected by former Canadian media mogul (and ex-con) Conrad Black, and more sorrowfully by Paul Mohammed, a recidivist, Pakistani American burglar who laments the pain and terror he's visited upon his victims, and the drug-fueled helplessness that resulted in his arrest on a day he was released from one of his prison sentences. And in the most blackly absurd scenes, a rural Albanian family is seen trapped within the walls of their shabby home because, under a regional centuries-old code, its patriarch can be slain by his enemy in a property-fence dispute if he walks out the door.
Baichwal's footage of the Gulf's petroleum-slicked fowl being sprayed by an environmental-cleanup team, the near-frenzy of the tomato pickers' workday in the fields, and the rusting ruin of the defunct Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia exerts power through the unseen main actors: the BP directors who cut corners (though few details are supplied here), the farmworkers' employers whose crimes have extended to literal slavery, the reformers and prisoners of the pioneering ESP. Her more prosaic tools are interviews with scholars on market economics, ecology, and human rights, whose views cover such a breadth of crises that the "debt" theme nearly spirals out of control, seemingly applicable to nearly all failures of civilization; contemplating the unceasing devouring of Earth's resources, the ecologist William Rees suggests that "humans have become a rogue species," racking up an ever-expanding deficit of natural assets.
While Baichwal treats Atwood, unnecessarily seen clacking at her laptop keyboard or blue-penciling speeches, with fannish reverence, the author contributes some pithy sound bites on the ideas of personal redemption (transacted in "a pawnshop of the soul") and trickle-down economics ("not a gushing waterfall, but a leaking tap"). Payback's chief frustration is that at least three of its subjects are large enough for dedicated feature-length treatment, but it does ultimately, with a guarded glimmer of hope, offer a path to balancing civilization's ledger with a hard-nosed brand of altruism, perhaps detectable under the handshakes and photo ops of Pacific Tomato Growers' "Fair Food" agreement with its historically disenfranchised labor force.