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‘The Debt’ a top-line thriller just right for fall

Flashback tale of Nazi hunters sparkles with strong performances

POSTED: September 14, 2011 3:08 p.m.
Laurie Sparham/AP Photo/Focus Features

Jessica Chastain, left, and Sam Worthington are shown in a scene from the espionage thriller "The Debt."

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We must be close to autumn. How can I tell? Not because the leaves have begun to turn, and certainly not because cool breezes suddenly greet me as I leave the house in the morning.

I know fall is near because there isn't one superhero movie in the current top 10, the last two so-called "thrillers" I've seen are actually understated, tense dramas, and the ideas the movies play with are suddenly a lot more interesting.

Consider this scene from "The Debt," for instance. It's 1966, and Israel's national intelligence agency, Mossad, is tracking down Nazi war criminals. A young agent named Rachel Singer, played in her youth by Jessica Chastain, is assigned to a three-person unit whose goal it is to go undercover in East Berlin, find Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a former Nazi "medical researcher" known as the Surgeon of Birchenau, and bring him to Israel to be put on trial.

Vogel now works as a gynecologist under the name Doktor Bernhardt. Rachel's fellow agents, Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas) and David Peretz (Sam Worthington), will handle Vogel once he is in custody, but it is Rachel's job to subdue him. And for that, she must get close to him.

Rachel poses as a young wife having difficulty getting pregnant. She allows this man - who conducted experiments on Jews in concentration camps akin to the real procedures done by Joseph Mengele, and who is viewed as a monster by her entire country - to perform a gynecological exam on her.

She first does this to secretly take his photo so other agents can verify his identity, then again to plan the abduction, and a third time so she can inject him with a knockout drug, after which Stephan and David will arrive dressed as emergency responders.

Just imagine climbing onto the examination chair, stirrups and all, so Joseph Mengele can access the most private, most sexualized part of your body.

This tension between the almost mythical fear provoked by this Surgeon of Birchenau and the necessity of dealing with him as a flesh-and-blood man provides a fascinating heart for the rest of "The Debt."

However, that is only half the story. The movie actually begins in 1997, when Rachel, Stephan, and David are past middle age and played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciarán Hinds, respectively.

The trio, particularly Rachel, have been lauded for decades as national heroes. Rachel and Stephan's daughter, Sarah (Romi Aboulafia) has even published a book chronicling the mission and subsequent killing of Vogel.

Questions soon arise, though, about whether the incident actually happened the way Rachel, Stephan and now Sarah's book claims. The glory the agents have enjoyed for so long may be a lie.

The two storylines converge in interesting ways, and Mirren, Wilkinson and Hinds all play their roles excellently, as all three always do. But this movie is best when it stays in 1966 for extended periods. The writing is better, and the events surrounding the initial attempt to abduct Vogel are rife with drama.

We also get a Nazi-themed story that we haven't really seen before, which is an achievement itself.

The conflict, and dare I say relationship, between Vogel and Rachel forms the center of the film, which helps Chastain continue her breakthrough year. I don't think anyone is having a better 2011. She absolutely shined in "The Tree of Life," has a supporting role in "The Help," and has already signed on for several films over the next few years, including another Terrence Malick movie.

Director John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love"), like so many other established directors are doing this year, branches into a new genre for him, but he keeps his focus trained on his characters.

That's ultimately what sets apart "The Debt" from other thrillers this year, and what reminds us that it's OK again for us adults to go back to the theaters.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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