“The Debt” carries strong build up, ambiguous end

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(Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Ever since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival almost a year ago, things certainly haven’t been easy for “The Debt.” After all, it was a major awards player before its premiere — an intense Jewish revenge film starring Oscar mainstays Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson as well as rising stars Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington. After the film met lukewarm reception in Toronto, it floundered around for a year or so and is now finally being released to theaters. Is it the disaster a few critics at Toronto lambasted it for being? No. Is it the major Oscar player it could have been? Probably not. But it is a relatively well-paced, fairly intense thriller that makes for a good distraction for a couple of hours.

The film opens just short of present day, staging a late ’90s book release detailing the process by which Mossad agents Rachel (Helen Mirren), Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) and David (Ciaran Hinds) killed the nefarious Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a surgeon who performed endless atrocities during the Holocaust. Quickly, the film dives into the past, as younger versions of the characters (played by Chastain, Marton Csokas and Worthington, respectively) go about their mission.

Director John Madden impresses throughout the film with his strong sense of pacing, smooth transitions between the past and the present, and a few brutal, ugly fight scenes that strip away any glamour the agents think their mission may hold. The film’s problems rest mostly in the script, co-written by the usually reliable Matthew Vaughn, who directed this summer’s “X-Men: First Class” and last year’s “Kick-Ass.” “The Debt” has all the makings of a great tragedy — a lie agreed upon by loose allies, lost loves and gallons of blood spilled thanks to the various characters’ fatal flaws, but its screenplay falls short.

The film’s lengthy middle section, which showcases the long period the three agents spend cooped up in a grungy apartment with Christensen’s surgeon as their hostage, plays out kind of like a play, allowing us to get to know the characters and all their nuances. Unfortunately, they aren’t nearly as interesting as the film thinks they are and the inevitable love triangle that forms is soapy, not compelling.

Chastain’s Rachel is easily the most relatable and interesting character in the film, thanks in no small part to Chastain, who is given more room to build a character here than in Terrence Malick’s flighty “The Tree of Life.” Though Rachel is saddled by slightly inconsistent characterization, Chastain brings a strength and intensity to her that you might not expect from her gentle disposition. Worthington (remember him?) struggles to breathe life into his disciplined, quiet David. Csokas’ Stephan is barely a character as much as he is a placeholder. The elderly versions of the characters are better acted across the board thanks to masters Mirren, Wilkinson and Hinds, but Wilkinson and Hinds are wasted as Mirren takes the center stage for most of the film’s third act.

Much of the disdain from the film’s Toronto premiere came from the film’s morally ambiguous conclusion, and the film spends a bit too much time building up to its big reveal and not enough time justifying it. Even so, when the film’s key moment comes around, it’s more of an obvious plot development than the mind-blowing twist it wants to be considered, and it’s certainly not anything disastrous enough to derail the film entirely.

“The Debt” is by no means the Oscar contender it was positioned as, but it’s still a film with its own small little charms, mostly thanks to the fantastic dual portrayals of Rachel Singer by Chastain and Mirren. While it plays as something of a smaller-scale version of Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” “The Debt” is an often suspenseful, interesting thriller. It’s not a film that you’ll be thinking about for the rest of the year (or even after you leave the theater), but it’s still one worth seeking out.

Printed on September 1, 2011 as: Stellar cast shines in "The Debt," film struggles with screenplay