The Debt is a full-bore thriller with more on its mind than world travel and smashing action—although there's some of the former and quite a bit of the latter. The story concerns three Mossad agents who undertake a dicey Cold War assignment to extract a monstrous ex-Nazi from East Berlin and bring him back to Israel for a high-profile trial. (The movie is based on a 2007 Israeli film, and while the mission is fictitious, the outlines of the 1960 Eichmann operation are clear.) The snatch goes awry, and the Nazi has to be dealt with on the spot. Nevertheless, upon their return home the three agents are celebrated for the essential success of their undertaking. Then, 30 years later, the case suddenly comes to life again, with possible consequences that could shake the nation. The movie asks us to contemplate the uses of deceit and the overriding value of truth, however painful. It's a riveting film.
It opens in Tel Aviv in 1966, with the three agents—Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas), Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), and David Peretz (Sam Worthington)—returning from Germany in triumph. They are instant national heroes, quickly dispatched to recount their dangerous adventures before spellbound gatherings. The fact that two of them seem reticent about doing so escapes comment.
Leaping ahead to 1997, we meet these three again. Now middle-aged, they have fallen out of close contact. The once-married Rachel (now played by Helen Mirren) and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) are long divorced; and David (Ciarán Hinds) has become a troubled, solitary wanderer. Rachel and Stephan are drawn back together at a party for their daughter, Sarah (Romi Aboulafia), who has written a book about her parents' legendary exploits. Taking Rachel aside, Stephan tells her that the old Nazi, long thought dead, appears to have resurfaced in Ukraine, where a local journalist is planning an embarrassing story about him. Stephan says this can't be allowed to happen—that Rachel must go to Kiev and, at last, terminate the brute.
In cutting back and forth between two time periods, the movie creates some initial confusion. Since Csokas and Worthington bear no resemblance to Wilkinson and Hinds, it's difficult, at first, to keep track of which character each of the older actors is supposed to be. This is not a problem in the early Berlin passages, though, in which we see that hard-nosed Stephan is in charge of the extraction, and Rachel (on her first field assignment) and David are posing as a married couple. The object of their mission, the ex-Nazi Vogel (Jesper Christensen), has transformed himself from the "Surgeon of Birkenau," who once conducted hideous medical experiments on captive Jews, into a kindly obstetrician. Pretending to be a woman with fertility problems, Rachel visits Vogel at his clinic, and their scenes of veiled interaction—with Rachel's feet up in stirrups and Vogel gently probing between her legs—are remarkable inventions of mounting paranoia.
Also fascinating are the later scenes between these two, after Vogel has been captured and brought back to the dingy apartment the agents are using for a base. The loathsome Nazi, now bound and helpless, maintains an avuncular front, but his verbal parrying with Rachel is grimly manipulative. (Quietly berating her for not simply shooting him, he says, "You Jews never knew how to kill, only how to die.") And the long, complex sequence in which the three agents attempt to smuggle Vogel out of East Berlin via a heavily guarded train station is a nerve-wringing piece of action filmmaking. The movie ends in another electrifying encounter, with Mirren's Rachel tracking the aged Vogel to a Kiev hospital—a confrontation that quickly devolves into harrowing, bloody violence.
Mirren is masterful in projecting the inner conflict of an old agent who doubts she can now fulfill her duty, but is determined to give it every effort still possible. And the now-ubiquitous Chastain (from The Tree of Life) gives a detailed account of a woman torn by love and loyalty, and weakened by youthful insecurity. But the movie's most charismatic performance is by Marton Csokas. Already memorable from the Lord of the Rings films and The Bourne Supremacy, Csokas creates a seductively cosmopolitan character here: with his black turtlenecks, endless cigarettes, and glimmering moral ambiguity, he has a silky bohemian allure. His Stephan is a watchful weigher of odds, a classic survivor. At all costs.
A Good Old Fashioned Orgy
This movie exhumes a creaky premise that dates back at least to Paul Mazursky's's swinging-'60s hit Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. The idea is that a group of longtime friends would suddenly decide to all have sex with one another—in this case simply because they need a theme for a party, and an orgy seems…well, why not? And since these people are all well-off urban 30-somethings, they naturally experience difficulties in cutting loose and getting down.
Ever since their high-school days, Eric (Jason Sudeikis) and his close-knit band of pals have been throwing parties at the big Hamptons house owned by Eric's father (Don Johnson). When dad decides to sell the place, Eric and the gang determine to throw one last bash. An orgy would be a great idea, he says, because they were all born too late to take part in the carnal abandon of their parents' generation, and too soon to get in on the action they think is being enjoyed by the freewheeling kids of today.
The movie wouldn't be worth much discussion if it weren't for Sudeikis—whose cheery way with a one-liner is a pleasure even in this cheesy context—and for a number of the one-liners themselves, which actually are funny. (Passing a glass of dubious box wine to one girl, Sudeikis says, "Don't get it on your skin.") Martin Starr (Adventureland) and Angela Sarafyan are also entertaining as two of the party-goers; but Tyler Labine, as the proverbial guy who couldn't get laid at an orgy, channels Jack Black all too energetically.
The picture attempts to build anticipation by counting down the weeks as the party date approaches. But really, we know what's going to happen. And the pre-orgy flourishes—the preparatory watching of group-sex videos, the visit to a secret swingers club, and the inevitable manifestation of penile insecurity—are predictable way stations.
Given the subject, the picture is surprisingly weak in the arousal department. There's a passing penis at one point, and some bare breasts at another; but overall, the movie resembles an R-rated episode of Friends. In addition, there's a sad lack of wild, wriggling fleshpiles—of actual orgying. The '60s, for better or worse, were never like this.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be out on November 8th from St. Martin's Press. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.