Here to Collect
Helen Mirren as a covert agent is nothing to scoff at since she had played the role with aplomb in Red, which makes this an all too recent revisit to a similar role, though here it's less of the comedic factor, and packing a more serious tone in its examination of truth, which in all essence is what one tells, and how others interpret, subject to compromised witnesses all involved in a myriad of reasons to rationalize their very untruthful actions. It stabs at our reality system and checks, and makes you wonder, with conspiracy theories, just how anything can be trusted at all if there are those hell bent on deceiving and living a lie.
Directed by John Madden, who spots a pedigree in his filmography such as Shakespeare in Love, Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Proof, to blips like Killshot. But I suppose his experience bode him well here, as he balances powerful drama with intense action that is vividly realistic, without going over the top like most action films, but deglamorizes every throw, punch and kick, and shows how brutal things can be especially when it doesn't flinch from the intention to kill. A remake of the Israel film Ha-Hov, The Debt tells a rather fragmented story about three Mossad operatives who are tasked to bring back a Nazi doctor who had experimented on the Jews during WWII, and does so in two different timelines when the operatives were young and idealistic, and the other when they're already senior citizens.
In the first instance, the young Rachel (Jessica Chastain growing her prominence in Hollywood as a leading lady) joins two seasoned operatives in Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) in East Berlin in the 1966, where they painstakingly live out their alter egos while waiting for the instruction to strike. Days pass through training in martial arts Krav Maga and honing their accent to perfection, while staking out their prey and conducting necessary surveillance of their plan and escape route, which in a way plays out like a Heist movie through their meticulous planning right down to the last detail. Their target Doktor Bernhardt aka Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) is now a gynecologist, and the entire narration through to the middle act which picked up when the plan gets put into motion, turns from a heist film, to one involving psychological horror as Vogel just knows how to push the buttons of his hunters, especially when they find that their avenue to escape with him alive is fast closing and tightening, with a key turn in the events that springs up a huge surprise.
The other timeline involves the much older trio of the hugely scarred Rachel (Helen Mirren) who's now estranged from Stephan (Tom Wilkinson), now a parliamentarian, and the aloof David (Ciaran Hinds). Celebrating the successful launch of her daughter's novel about Rachel's heroism in that mission, we slowly see the cracks beginning to form, and how their world starts to come crashing down, hard. Things are not what they seem, and John Madden manages to keep everything under wraps, peeling off the layers expertly through flashbacks and throwing in sucker punches at the narrative, written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, enabling one to question and yet understand how the trio had made a key decision they have to live a lifetime by. And this moral dilemma is what lifts this film and built suspense, keeping us riveted at the different versions of truth, what constitutes truth, and how living a lie and gaining everything the world had to offer, was something hard to resist.
Somewhere in the narrative a romance formed between the characters too, a romance that wasn't what it had started off to be, where lust arising from an uncertain future complicated matters, and escaping from one's comfort zone is out of the question. Although fleeting and never quite well formed, the cast's excellent nuanced performance in their characters' attitudes in this aspect provided that bit of emotional resonance outside of being calculated and cold due to their mission at hand. While Sam Worthington was absent for the most parts of the film and easily having the least screen time, I thought he did best with his character here, besides having to totally lose control of himself when confronted with unimaginable evil in front of him, and while resigned to a fate he himself had agreed to, made the story a lot more poignant when everything is revealed toward the end.
The Debt is that rare thriller that grows on you as the narrative progresses, one that provides you the different perspectives of the characters and the huge baggage each had to bear through a joint pact made. It severely questions just how we can live with lies, and the guilt that comes associated with that, before recognizing that only the truth in unadulterated terms, will set one free. Highly recommended!