Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

{The Debt opened in Seattle on Wednesday, 8/31 and is playing at the Majestic Bay, Landmark Seven Gables, and Meridian 16}

The Debt is the cinematic opposite of a Reese's Peanut Butter cup – combining many great tastes they don't quite taste great together. Instead we end up with a film with lots of great actors, parts of an impressively taut spy thriller all mashed up with a sexed up soap opera. The result is a bucket-load of effective tension and atmosphere that fizzles hard with a "huh" in the third act.

The film is a remake of a fairly recent (2007) Israeli film of the same name. Which has left me pondering for the last two weeks – how exactly did Hollywood bollocks up this one? Upon reflection, it's entirely possible the original Israeli version might have had similar flaws. Unfortunately the original film Ha-Hov is not easily viewable in the US – so my (admittedly lazy) quest to compare the works side by side remains unfulfilled. Though I'm pretty sure the Hebrew language version wouldn't have me so frequently thinking "wow, it's odd to hear Helen Mirren speak in Hebrew accented English."

The film opens with a team of three Mossad agents returning home after a mission in East Berlin. The small but powerful tone of their welcome back makes it clear they've done something important for their country. Though from the effort the young agents are making to plaster on a smile, not to mention the wound on agent Rachel Singer's (Jessica Chastain) face there are strong signals everything didn't go according to plan. From this point on The Debt alternates between flashback to these three on their mission behind enemy lines and their present day persona's. If you think you're plagued with Jewish guilt – just wait to you get a sense of what's behind those forced smiles of the disembarking snatch and grab team.

Flash forward to 1997 as Rachel Singer (played by Helen Mirren) attends the launch party of her daughter's new book celebrateing the younger group's mission. In which her mother's team went into East Berlin to capture a Nazi war criminal and bring him to trial in Israel — very specifically to bring him to trial alive. Things don't go 100% according to plan, but his death at Rachel's hands during his attempted escape has made them national heroes for over 30 years. Throughout the remainder of the picture, the time-view bounces between the challenges faced by the young team in Berlin in 1966 and their older versions in 1997 who are struggling with choices they made on that mission.

The first half of the film was quite strong, nailing the look of 1966 Berlin and delivering an appropriate level of tension. But by the end I felt things had derailed. First there’s the introduction of a soap opera-like love triangle in the 1966 safe house. But mainly it's the modern day storyline that completely lost me from around the 2/3 mark as I was pulled along to a rather unsatisfying ending. The mission in flashback had me remarkably engaged. There's true tension in its planning and execution. East Berlin was not a simple operational environment due to the ever present specter of communist control. Their target is living under an assumed name and practicing Obstetrics. Singer is sent in undercover as a woman fighting infertility, which leads to likely one of the most uncomfortable on-screen discussions from a character in stirrups in the history of cinema. Followed eventually by one impressive as heck takedown of the Nazi by Singer —  though not before the whole visiting a doctor for infertility produces some unplanned complications for the team later in life.  But in the short term, they grab the bastard and head for their exit.  As tends to happen in such situations, things don't go as smoothly as they'd like and they're forced to work through a plan B – in an environment where coming up with a plan B ain't going to be easy.  They're stuck baby-sitting their target until they can find another out.  Which reinforces the lesson, "don't talk with the evil son of a bitch you need to smuggle out of the country."  He's just going to sow seeds of dischord within the team. Each and every time… 

There are of course some twists, but by the time they surface they’re pretty underwhelming. The really limited growth of the young characters in the 30 years that followed left me befuddled – and the ending seemed tacked on. It's as though someone thought what the film really needed was an extra 20 minutes of Helen Mirren sneaking around, avoiding some people have sex on a desk Splinter Cell style and a conclusion involving some big moral decision. The nature of the decision itself is what has me most perplexed. Though I can't really speak to it without giving away too much. Let's just say I sensed a theme of time and forgiveness that just seems very, very hard for me to reconcile with the back story of this team. Not to mention the reality the plot is based around. As the credits rolled, I was left scratching my head as to the point.

This is a technically well made film, overstuffed with strong actors and actresses. The first part is interesting enough not to strongly warn you off. I just wish it could have more fully lived up the potential of the many strong folks involved.