Lies are an onerous burden in The Debt, a political thriller about Israeli Mossad agents that avoids grappling with its chosen political and personal themes via plotting that eschews ethical complexity. In 1997, David (Ciáran Hinds) commits suicide rather than speak again with Stefan (Tom Wilkinson), while Rachel (Helen Mirren) uneasily tolerates celebration of her famous Nazi-hunting exploits in her journalist daughter’s new book. This once-secret-agent trio’s profound uneasiness is a mystery that John Madden’s film, based on Assaf Bernstein’s 2007 Israeli original Ha-Hov, complicates by immediately depicting Rachel’s 1966 killing of Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a.k.a. the Butcher of Birkenau, a Joseph Mengele-style SS doc who, 20 years after WWII, had retreated to a quiet new life as an East Berlin obstetrician. If, as she claims and we see, Rachel shot Vogel down after he attempted to escape (an effort that left her with a slashed scar across her left cheek), then why does Madden choose to return to 1965 to begin dramatizing the mission of young Rachel (Jessica Chastain), David (Sam Worthington), and Stefan (Marton Csokas)? Therein lies the central narrative question, though Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan’s script teases it lightly, instead concentrating on the espionage machinations of the team to nab Vogel (through Rachel’s fertility-related visits to Vogel’s office), and subsequent efforts to deal with him once their extrication plans go awry.
In terms of suspense, The Debt is an efficiently gritty saga, as workmanlike in its mood and pacing as its aesthetics are suitably gray and grim. Its performances are likewise resourceful and affecting, with Chastain and Worthington in the past sequences, and Mirren and Wilkinson in the later chapters, exuding—even during an unnecessary love-triangle subplot—a complicated mess of responsibility, guilt, sacrifice, revenge, and regret. The problem that arises, however, is that those notions, both on an individual and historical-political scale, remain so secondary to the clockwork mechanics of the two-time-period script that Madden’s latest never amounts to more than a competently grave The Boys from Brazil-style cloak-and-dagger yarn. The tension wrought by Madden’s clean orchestration might have been enough, too, except that as it wends its way to a third act in which bombshells reveal underlying preoccupations that are never properly addressed, the film finds itself in the awkward position of resolving quandaries it isn’t truly interested in rigorously addressing. Consequently, The Debt contorts itself in ungainly ways in order to both satisfy its audience’s desire for justice as well as to allow its protagonists to stake out noble positions without having to cope with their consequences—a have-it-all-ways approach that results in little more than moral wishy-washiness.