Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Debt (2011)

Starring: Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain
Director: John Madden

Well, the summer has come to an end, and with it, the summer blockbuster season. So everyone is either sad (it brought us "Super 8") or breathing a sigh of relief (it also brought us "The Smurfs"). But if you are a film buff such as myself, it is simply a changing of the seasons as we head into the fall and see the "serious" movies (i.e. "the ones you are supposed to like"). One of the first ones up is tiled "The Debt." Here is the original trailer for it:

Apparently the film was expected to come out in early August, but there was a lot of behind the scenes tension between the producers so they struggled to make the deadline. As a result, the final product ended up being an ill-conceived compromise that no one liked.

So it was completely revamped and this was made instead...

Based upon the Israeli film of the same name, its about three members of Mossad who are put in charge of capturing Dieter Vogel, a Nazi war criminal who is living in 1960s Berlin. However, they soon find out that capturing a Nazi war criminal is not as easy as it sounds. Events go awry and it comes back to haunt them more than 30 years later.

This film is very well done. A mixture between a political and psychological thriller, it follows three people as they come face to face with a monster and it becomes questionable as to who is the real hostage in the situation. The Mossad agents cannot simply kill the guy and then go about their merry way; they have to capture him, get him out of Soviet-controlled East Berlin and then send him to Israel where he will face justice. In order to do this, they have to get up close and personal with him. That job comes down to the only female agent, Rachel Singer, (played in her younger year by Jessica Chastain). Since Vogel is now working as an OB/GYN, she poses as a woman who claims to have fertility problems and needs his help. That's right: she has to get inspected by a Nazi gynecologist, who during the war was known as "The Surgeon of Birkenau," and was responsible for experimenting on millions of children in ways that lead to their horrible, agonizing deaths. Awkward...

The highlight of the movie is Vogel, played by Jesper Christensen. He is...well, evil. Very, very evil. He is not one of those people who is simply misunderstood and turns out to be a flesh and blood human being when you meet him. He is just downright despicable, has no redeeming quality, and deserves everything he gets and more. However, the Mossad has to be professional about the whole situation. When their get-away plan falls apart, they hide out in an apartment building where they keep him tied up, taking turns feeding him, shaving him, etc. He repays their diligence by being as difficult as possible, behaving like a fussy five year old. He also makes a number of highly disturbing comments about how weak and selfish the Jews were during the Holocaust and remain the same today. Did I mention that Singer lost her mother during the war and fellow agent David Peretz (played in his younger years by Sam Worthington) lost his entire family because of the Final Solution? Yeah, try dealing with this guy when you have that kind of tragic personal history! I do not think that Christensen will win an Oscar for his role since the Academy might be reluctant, for the second time in three years, to give the Best Supporting Actor award to a guy who played a sadistic Nazi, but he at least deserves to be nominated.

The focus of the film is basically about unfinished business. While the three are cheered in the present day, it becomes clear that something happened three decades ago that they are not proud of. As the mystery unravels, it shows what it is like to hide the truth for the greater good but also what kind of problems it can cause for those who bear it. The fact that these people are already saddled with the burden of living in the shadow of one of the worst events in human history only adds to the emotional pull of the story.

The film is very solid. The acting by Chastain, Mirren, and everyone else is strong (I have never been much of a fan of Worthington, but even he manages a convincing performance), the transitions between the two time periods is handled very smoothly, and it even has a few good actions scenes. It is just good all around. Okay, fine, the ending was kind of dumb. Not from a story-telling perspective or anything, but the way it is executed. I cannot go into too much detail without spoiling it, but let's just say that it is supposed to be this big dramatic scene that will draw a conclusion to the misery that has haunted the main characters, but it ends up looking unrealistic and kind of silly. But as I said, it does not ruin the story itself, so I can forgive the movie for this relatively minor error. Oh, and the scene with Mirren in the newsroom at night also dragged on a bit, but that is not worth complaining about that much.

Overall, I enjoyed it. For those who are wondering, it is not as quite as good as "Munich" but that is a little unfair since, despite the fact that they have a similar subject matter (and Ciaran Hinds happens to be in both of them), they are different movies in terms of their focus. Either way, it is a good way to start off the Oscar season and a good film to watch at any point, period. I recommend it.

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