Silver Screen: The Debt ***1/2

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Silver Screen: The Debt ***1/2
Bryan Miller

The legacy of the Holocaust echoes throughout the thriller-cum-morality-play The Debt, based on the Israeli film Ha-Hov, although not in the ways you might expect. Though the film follows a group of Mossad agents as they seek vengeance for their murdered countrymen, The Debt bears fairly little resemblance to Steven Spielberg's Munich, which explored the double-edged sword of retribution, or even the spectacular Lebanon, which cast a skeptical eye on Israel's militarism.

Israeli military might and the use thereof is never a point of debate, as the movie's initial conflict is fairly clear cut: A trio of Mossad agents infiltrate Soviet-controlled East Germany to ferret out a Nazi war criminal whose Mengele-esque record of atrocities marks him as an absolute villain. Instead the questions posed here concern the burdens of secrets and lies, with the painful history of World War II and German totalitarianism intensifying the conflict.

The Debt opens with the three agents well past their prime. Silent, somber David (Ciará n Hinds) is living a life of solitude, while his former partners, the now-divorced Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) and Rachel (Helen Mirren), are celebrating the release of their daughter's first book, a historical account of her own parents' daring covert operation years ago. The narrative fragments, jumping from the mission in Germany in the 1960s to the late 1990s in Israel, but it's more linear than it first seems. The majority of the movie is a prolonged flashback to the time of the operation in which David is played by Sam Worthington, Stephan by Marton Csokas, and Rachel by the new arthouse wondergirl Jessica Chastain.

Chastain's younger version of Rachel is a capable but uncertain operative, a highly trained translator working her first assignment in the field. She's posing as David's wife, with Stephan as their roommate. She's rightly afraid-- Rachel is the bait in a plot to uncover Nazi butcher Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen, in an awesomely loathsome turn), who is now working under a new name as a gynecologist.

Yep, that's right, a Nazi gynecologist. It's every bit as unsettling as it sounds, and director John Madden, working off a committee-written script, plays up the creepiness factor with aplomb, recalling the squirm-inducing horror of David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers.

Rachel signs up as one of Vogel's patients to get closer to him, putting her in the most vulnerable conceivable position both metaphorically and literally. Her bravery is rewarded, however, and she captures him in the film’s most violent and intense sequence. But the plan to secretly ship a drugged-up Vogel out of the country and back to Israel goes awry, leaving the three agents trapped behind Communist lines with the embodiment of evil chained to their radiator. The dominant concern becomes what to do with Vogel, how best to make him answer for his crimes and achieve maximum justice.

The final answer to that question is, intriguingly, not nearly as simple as to-kill-or-not-to-kill, and the ramifications of that choice are what drive the bookending scenes closer to the present day, when all three partners have become estranged from each other. The moral quandary on Mirren's older, more jaded Rachel is a seemingly impossible one.

Movies in which multiple actors play the same characters are often difficult to swallow, and though unavoidable, it presents a problem here as well. Chastain is excellent-- her performance in the examining-room scenes is intense and absolutely convincing-- and it's a high compliment to say that she's not vastly outpaced by Mirren. The other two pairings, however, are less amenable. Wilkinson and Csokas's iterations of Stephan don't gibe too well, while the one-note Worthington (Avatar, Terminator: Salvation) has never been able to do much other than punch things and be quiet, and it's near impossible to imagine him becoming the quite different-looking and far more interesting Hinds.

Still, despite the mismatched actors and increasingly droopy pacing, The Debt is able to keep its story straight while making a worthwhile tangle of its moral conundrum.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter @bmillercomedy.