Espionage thrillers are the last place one would look to find logic, in a genre that is more about generating heightened suspense than making much sense. But what if the undercover characters get so caught up in their own devious machinations, that media exposure comes back to bite them on their subsequently celebrated public personas?
Such is the case with John Madden’s The Debt, a nazi hunter spy caper that segues into a moral thriller, as strangely as Jessica Chastain morphs back and forth into Helen Mirren as her older Israeli secret agent self. A remake of the Israeli movie, Ha-Hov, The Debt chillingly unravels in the mid-1960s in East Berlin, as three young Mossad agents pursue Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen).
An infamous Treblinka death camp surgeon conducting experiments on inmates there, Vogel is currently a fugitive war criminal hiding out in East Berlin, and licensed under an assumed name as a practicing gynecologist. Now, here’s where plot points get a little peculiar. Rachel (Jessica Chastain), as the sole female member of the undercover trio, dials up the diabolical doctor to make an appointment for a gyn checkup.
And as they exchange small talk between her spread-eagled limbs propped into examining table stirrups, Rachel gains his confidence sufficiently to plot a return visit with her two live-in Mossad cohorts (Sam Worthingtin and Marton Csokas). And elaborately conspire to kidnap Vogel in front of his hysterical nurse, who also happens to be his wife.
Which is not only somewhat a violation of the doctor-patient relationship in reverse, but seems an unnecessarily convoluted scheme when simply snatching him in a dark alley as most spies are prone to do, would have been the more sensible route. Then again, screenwriters don’t tend to be seasoned spies. At the same time, Rachel has not only concocted a fib that she’s a married woman having difficulty getting pregnant, which leads Vogel to administer fertility injections. But she’s also having affairs with both fellow agents at the same time, leading to an instant pregnancy with a little pharmaceutical help from the accommodating doc.
As for their intended hostage, Vogel has since been dispatched to the hideout of this Mossad lovers den, tied up in the kitchen until the three bickering agents can figure out a way to smuggle him to Israel for trial – no easy feat – rather than simply assassinating him. Which affords the doctor enough time to plot his escape. And leave the embarrassed spies with a single recourse – to lie and say they killed him anyway.
Normally, any espionage thriller might leave well enough alone at the point. But Vogel, who should be more than satisfied that those criminally pursuing him have inadvertently offered the perfect foil that he’s now dead and no longer in need of pursuing – while the older Rachel (Hellen Mirren) has even written a bestseller congratulating herself for this heroism in question – instead provides a hot tip to the media. Namely, that he’s still very much alive in a Ukrainian mental hospital.
So what is a mortified Mossad agent to do, but kill him again. And though this boldly bracing thriller keeps the audience quite captive as it nears the end, a little too much focus on guilt revolving around not killing the right people, as opposed to killing all the wrong people as secret agents tend to do, somewhat derails this narrative at the finish line.