New plot to thrill

The Debt—not your standard espionage thriller

Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington play three Mossad agents on the trail of the “Surgeon of Birkenau.”

Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington play three Mossad agents on the trail of the “Surgeon of Birkenau.”

The Debt
Starring Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds. Direct by John Madden. Cinemark 14 and Feather River Cinemas. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

There’s enough international intrigue in The Debt to at least halfway justify the film’s being marketed as an “espionage thriller.” But the thriller elements in this film are decidedly offbeat for the most part, and its convoluted narrative wanders away from standard thriller territory in a number of ways.

The onscreen results are bound to frustrate at least part of the targeted audience. But there’s also much of interest here for viewers willing to venture outside the confines of that generic thriller mindset: a peculiar romantic triangle; a meditation on moral and political absolutism; a study of the fascist personality; some unexpectedly nuanced reflections on the battle against (and also with) monstrous evil.

The basic story revolves around the post-World War II pursuit and capture of a Nazi war criminal, the notorious Dr. Vogel (aka the “Surgeon of Birkenau”) by a trio of Israeli intelligence agents. The action moves back and forth between two distinct eras—1965 in East Berlin where the threesome first captures Vogel (who is reported dead before he can be put on trial in Israel), and 1997 when word surfaces that Vogel may still be alive and in hiding in reunified Berlin.

In both eras, Vogel (Jesper Christensen) is portrayed as a combination of evil genius and a sort of horror-movie monster in repulsively human guise. The three Mossad agents, two men and a woman, are variously obsessed with Vogel, and their pursuit of him—which is by turns exceptionally daring and extraordinarily messy and mundane—reshapes and twists each of their lives including their extraordinary and messy relations with each other.

All of that comes trailing an assortment of sometimes perplexing complications. Basically, the film begins in 1997 with older versions of the trio looking back on the events of 1965, then kicks into suspenseful-thriller mode with a riveting account of the 1965 capture, then plunges back into the unanswered questions, conflicting reports, belated repercussions, and recurring perils of 1997. By the time the 1997 segment returns to something like thriller mode, The Debt has pretty thoroughly redefined itself as a stingingly ironic historical melodrama whose three would-be heroes are in many ways profoundly anti-heroic.

The three agents are played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds in 1997, and Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas in 1965. That too makes for some perplexing complications, but each of the six brings a certain gravity and credibility to roles that occasionally veer toward the unlikely.