Review: The Debt

The Debt is a taut, gripping and surprisingly disturbing thriller.

By Alex Stevenson

The idea of an 'intelligent thriller' is a bit of a misnomer. Anything can be thrilling if you stick an 'intelligent' before it: going around an art gallery can be thrilling, in the intellectual sense of the word. Fortunately, The Debt manages to keep the physical drama as tense as the mental one. This is a thriller, alright: it provides endless jumpy moments to revel in. But it manages to explore some clever ideas about truth, deception and even evil, too.

It's the story of three Mossad agents, whose mission to capture a war criminal in 1965/66 doesn't quite go according to plan. Three decades later, a critical decision they make comes back to haunt them. Ok, perhaps it sounds a bit clichéd. It's not. The twists and turns are very neatly done. They reinforce a dark undercurrent begun with the troubling images of the Holocaust which appear early on. This is not a feel-good film, which is why it is so enjoyable to watch.

But The Debt does ring some political bells, too. The main psychological pressure point for the older trio relates to a secret they agreed to keep three decades before: it's this debt to truth which the film's title alludes to. Cover-ups of this scale, deceptions maintained in the interests of a nation – it's all very familiar fare. The mental burden this places on the deceivers could have been explored even more powerfully. "Truth is a luxury," David barks at one especially intense moment. Even for those in public life, honesty isn't always the best option.

Then there's the devious, purring evil of the Surgeon of Birkenau, whose hideous experiments on Holocaust victims made him an obvious target for Mossad agents. In real life this villain was Josef Mengele, who spent most of his life hiding in South America. In the film he is living in East Berlin, a monster brilliantly played by Jesper Christensen. The mission of our heroes is to extract him to face trial for war crimes; as they get close to him and see glimpses of his devious humanity it's difficult not to think of the modern-day madman, Muammar Gaddafi, whose disregard for the life of his citizens has seen him indicted by the international criminal court.

The principal action of The Debt takes place in communist East Berlin, but there's little focus on the Soviets beyond their stereotyped guards. Another group completely written out are the Palestinians: this is not about them. It's about the aftermath of the Second World War and the desire for revenge. In the end, the question of whether justice is finally served makes up the gripping final sequence.

Helen Mirren puts in another strong performance, but the best work onscreen comes from the actress playing her younger self, Jessica Chastain, and Sam Worthington of Avatar fame. The emotional weaknesses caused by their sexual tension creates the moment of opportunity for Vogel, whose ruthless cunning steals the show throughout.

The Debt, Miramax Pictures, 113 minutes, starring Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Jesper Christensen and Marton Csokas, is released in the UK on September 30th