Movie Review: The Debt
Directed by John Madden (Marv Films, 2010)
John Madden’s cagey thriller about three Mossad agents sent to capture a Nazi war criminal hiding out in East Berlin raises ethical questions and goose bumps galore. Young Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), Stephan Gould (Marton Csokas), and David Peretz (Sam Worthington) must figure out how to kidnap the monstrous “Surgeon of Birkenau” (Jesper Christensen) and sneak the murderous physician over the Berlin Wall and back to Israel for a public trial.
When their well-laid plans go awry and they find themselves hopelessly imprisoned with their villainous captive, the three young agents must figure out how to accomplish their mission without turning into beasts themselves. Suddenly Madden’s physical thriller has turned into a moral nightmare, where the monster being confronted is the one beating within our own chests.
In the white heat of this moral battle the agents blink and their evil prey momentarily outmaneuvers them, which creates a fresh and unsettling moral quandary that is resolved with a fiction that will cast a shadow over the rest of their lives.
Thirty years later the middle-aged threesome, now played by Helen Mirren (Rachel), Tom Wilkinson (Stephan), and Ciaran Hinds (David), discovers that their shared fiction is about to unravel, and yet again they face a dilemma that tears at the fabric of their friendship and eats at their individual consciences. Rachel again finds herself in the most vulnerable spot, having to face the team’s demons and failures and to wrestle with the ethical questions created by their earlier choices.
Madden’s intergenerational thriller grabs us with the excitement of hunting down a dangerous prey and pins us to the mat by wrestling with evil in human form. But the story is at its best when it forces our heroes to face their own demons and to negotiate a moral universe that has been shaped not just by the violence of villains, but by their own secrets, sins, and lies.