There is a compelling, two-part cross-historical story contained within the noble, if hopelessly flawed, thriller The Debt, and it’s just waiting to get out. More to the point, it’s really the story of three key points in history, one in the ugly, unforgettable, and unforgivable past of the WWII Holocaust. A plot by the Israeli Mossad secret service to abduct a still-living Nazi war criminal and put him on trial becomes a long-haul cat-and-mouse of determined pursuers and a wily, amoral prey.
Sequences in 1960s East Berlin have a warm and gritty power, featuring Jessica Chastain (surely an important new actor on the scene) as the Mossad agent who would take down the cold-blooded and experimental “surgeon of Birkenau.” She and her two agents, one of whom she falls vainly in love with, run afoul with ill fates and dark circumstances, as well as a few taut, nervous-making suspense sequences.
Real problems ensue when the story fast-forwards to the late 1990s in Tel Aviv and then the Ukraine, and Chastain magically morphs into Helen Mirren. We’re asked by the filmmakers to follow the twisted narrative and filmic logic into a late-breaking and embarrassingly silly showdown with the villain, but we’re lost to the cause or veracity of the story. In the end, the two ends of The Debt fail to meet in the middle, and we’re left with disbelief unsuspended and a vague feeling of having seen a film spun out of control.