Blu-ray Review: Jessica Chastain Compensates For Flawed Script in ‘The Debt’

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CHICAGO – It’s little surprise that Jessica Chastain has received so much attention during this year’s awards season. Thanks to a series of release date delays, six of her films were released in 2011, each featuring an entirely different role for the strikingly versatile actress. From her slapstick pratfalls in “The Help” to her ethereal grace in “The Tree of Life,” Chastain displayed a remarkable range that has made it impossible for moviegoers to tear their eyes away from her.

In John Madden’s problematic espionage thriller, “The Debt,” Chastain proves to be every bit as mesmerizing, though the film suffers considerably whenever she’s offscreen. Based on Assaf Bernstein’s 2007 Israeli thriller, “Ha-Hov,” the film cuts back and forth in time as it follows three Mossad agents on their mission to capture a Nazi surgeon. Though the central action takes place in 1965, the film repeatedly jumps 31 years in the future to a tense reunion between two of the agents. In a year where shuffling chronologies have become the norm, typified by “J. Edgar” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” this narrative puzzle is a cinch. Blu-ray Rating: 3.0/5.0
Blu-ray Rating: 3.0/5.0

Like Stephen Daldry’s equally fascinating but flawed drama, “The Reader,” this twisty yarn centers its portrait of a guilt-ridden conscience in a setting haunted by ghosts of the Holocaust. In both cases, the “mystery” proves to be unsatisfactory and ultimately irrelevant when juxtaposed against such historic atrocities. The most compelling scenes occur in the flashbacks, as an agonizing decision to suppress the truth is made by the young protagonist. Just as David Kross served as the emotional heart of “Reader,” so does Chastain in “Debt,” and her portrayal of ambitious young agent Rachel Singer is the picture’s greatest asset. In the film’s first act, she joins fellow agents Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) in East Berlin to bring the Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) to justice.

Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington star in John Madden’s espionage thriller The Debt, a Focus Features release.
Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington star in John Madden’s espionage thriller The Debt, a Focus Features release.
Photo credit: Laurie Sparham

Christensen’s performance is deeply chilling, with his soft-spoken demeanor betraying no sense of subdued evil. Since Vogel now works as a gynecologist, Rachel volunteers to place her feet in the stirrups while moving in for the kill. Editor Alexander Berner deftly builds the suspense to an excruciating degree during Rachel’s initial encounters with Vogel. Less successful are the screenplay’s attempts at contriving a love triangle between the trio of agents. Csokas delivers strong work, but Worthington appears to be suffering from post-“Avatar” blandness. He acted Christian Bale off the screen in “Terminator Salvation,” but as soon as Hollywood set it sights on transforming him into the next big marquee name, he’s been entirely stripped of his edge and charisma.
The consistently unrequited love between Rachel and David seems to have been plucked straight out of a trashy romance novel, and the chemistry between Chastain and Worthington is nonexistent. As the older Rachel, Helen Mirren attempts to bring the romantic subplot some credibility with a few fleeting facial expressions, while adding the first elements of intrigue with her resistant reactions to praise of her heroism. It’s obvious that Rachel and her fellow agents have been harboring a secret over the past three decades, and their parallel storyline begins just as the truth is threatening to break free. Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds play the aged versions of Stephan and David (respectively) but neither actor is allowed enough screen time to register as little more than a cameo. 

The Debt was released on Blu-ray and DVD on Dec. 6, 2011.
The Debt was released on Blu-ray and DVD on Dec. 6, 2011.
Photo credit: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

For its first two thirds, Madden’s film succeeds as a crackling good yarn, though it’s considerably more entertaining than provocative. Co-writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman are clearly more skilled in crafting genre-bending larks like “Kick Ass” and “Stardust” than well-modulated adult dramas with subject matter weightier than a comic book. The other credited writer is ‘Tinker, Tailor” scribe Peter Straughan, and the resulting script uneasily melds the clichés of an action blockbuster with a more thoughtful, introspective thriller. What nearly destroys the film is its final act, which succumbs to wildly implausible over-the-top set-pieces capped off by an obscenely far-fetched climax. Even Hit Girl would’ve rolled her eyes at this ending.
“The Debt” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio), and includes a series of lackluster featurettes marred by brief running times and repetitive footage. One of them plays like a blatant “For Your Consideration” reel for Mirren, though Chastain’s work is undoubtedly more award-worthy. It would’ve been interesting to hear more about Chastain’s collaboration with Mirren, and their efforts to use similar gestures and nuances in their performances. Wilkinson says that his past experience playing Mirren’s boyfriend on “Prime Suspect” aided greatly in their scenes together, since it gave both actors a built-in familiarity with one another.
Madden is joined by producer Kris Thykier on the diverting audio commentary track, where they discuss their experience of shooting in Israel with crew members from the original movie. They also highlight their efforts to expand on the structure provided by “Ha-Hov,” and reveal that the Nazi surgeon’s identity as a gynecologist was an invention of the screenplay. The filmmakers were determined to avoid casting a familiar face for the role of Vogel, and it was Stellan Skarsgård who initially recommended Christensen. Madden claims that it was always his intention to never exploit the subject matter, while ensuring that the “themes of human frailty weren’t bent out of shape to accommodate a thriller.” Up until the final reel, Madden stays true to his word.

‘The Debt’ is released by Universal Studios Home Entertainment and stars Jessica Chastain, Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, Jesper Christensen, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds. It was written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan and directed by John Madden. It was released on Dec. 6, 2011. It is rated R. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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