THE DEBT: A Meandering Spy Thriller

by Jeff Beck, Guest Film Critic
THE DEBT: A Meandering Spy Thriller
RICHMOND, VA (HNN)  -  “The Debt” is a spy thriller that was originally supposed to be released at the end of last year, and while the reason given for its move is the studio changing to new owners, the film offers up more conclusive reasons for why it specifically would have been delayed.
For starters, for a thriller, there are almost no thrills to be had in a story spanning 30 years that tries to cover a heroic mission. However, the story itself is another problem.


In the late 90s, we meet three former spies, Rachel (Helen Mirren), David (Ciaran Hinds), and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson), who are being celebrated for a brave mission they carried out in the mid-60s where they captured and killed a Nazi war criminal known as Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), aka “The Butcher of Birkenau,” a doctor who performed experiments on his patients. Rachel’s daughter has written a book about the mission, giving details about how it was brought to an end by her mother shooting Vogel as he tried to escape. However, as Rachel reads this passage of the book aloud, something is obviously troubling her.

We then flash back to the three agents when they were younger. Rachel (Jessica Chastain) is posing as the wife of David (Sam Worthington) and is staying with him and Stephan (Marton Csokas) in a run-down apartment which will act as their base of operations for the mission. They have located Vogel, who is hiding out as a local doctor, and confirm his identity via photographs that Rachel takes while posing as a patient. With his identity confirmed, the three kidnap him and move ahead with their plan which involves hopping on a train out of Berlin and transporting him to Israel where he will stand trial for his crimes. However, complications arise that lead to emergency changes in their carefully constructed plan.

On the surface that sounds like a pretty exciting story, right? Not the way it’s told here. Thanks to a lot of sluggish pacing and drawn-out scenes, we end up with a film that feels much longer than it needs to be. The film starts slow, introducing us to the characters in modern day, but at this point, we don’t know anything that’s happened, just that these three agents are supposedly heroes, so we don’t really have any connection to them yet.

The second act is the most engaging section of the film. It is here where we flashback and witness exactly what really happened all those years ago when the mission went terribly wrong. Here was a perfect chance to let us get to know the characters well, but instead the writers opt for a love triangle that never really gets developed, and since it’s focusing on this uninteresting love triangle instead of trying to up the suspense and urgency of the mission, the pacing of the film begins to suffer even more than it did in the slow opening.

The third act changes again, jumping back into present day, and presents Rachel with another mission after all these years. By this point, we have learned that things didn’t go exactly the way the three said they did during their original mission, so now the story becomes a strange tale of trying to put to rest a lie they all told. This was another chance for the writers to throw a few thrills our way, but instead the languid pacing continues until the film finally fizzles out with an unsatisfying conclusion.

The actors are certainly not to blame. In the present day, we get such great actors as Tom Wilkinson and Oscar-winner Helen Mirren, but they just aren’t given a whole lot to do but sit around and fret over what happened and what could possibly happen if they are found out. During the second act, we get a good performance from Jessica Chastain and a particularly engaging performance from Jesper Christensen as the insane doctor.

The writing here is more to blame for the film’s lack of vigor. It was surprising to find out that it was co-written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman (both of whom wrote, or helped write, the wonderful films “Stardust,” “Kick-Ass,” and “X-Men: First Class”), and Peter Straughan (who wrote the decent comedy “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People”). It seems like the former two could have added a little more edge to the film to help it flow better, especially given the credits already under their belts, but sadly all three just allow it to drift along, which doesn’t really allow it to get anywhere.

If they had taken the time to address the main plot more closely, then perhaps it wouldn’t have had such a meandering feeling to it. We’re supposed to be interested in the characters, but we’re never really given a chance to know them, and when we’re supposed to be engaged in the mission, they’d rather have us trying to focus on the relationships between the characters. If you were looking for a thrilling and immersing story of bravery based on the synopsis of the film, sadly you won’t find it here. 2/4 stars.
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