This has been Jessica Chastain’s year as far as ubiquity goes. She’s co-starred in The Tree of Life, The Help, Take Shelter, and she’s still got Texas Killing Fields and Coriolanus on the way. However, of the films I’ve seen her in so far, she’s never been front and center. She was overshadowed by Brad Pitt in Tree of Life, everything was overshadowed by Michael Shannon in Take Shelter, and she did a fine job in The Help hinting that she was the real deal. But her latest film, The Debt, gives her the lead and she’s never able to hold the screen with any intensity or subtlety. She’s once again overshadowed by her fellow actors and this time around she must struggle with a movie that tries to be an intense spy-thriller and ignores its strengths as a claustrophobic pressure-cooker and thoughtful moral drama.
In 1966, Israeli operatives Rachel Singer (Chastain), David Peretz (Sam Worthington), and Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas) are tasked with capturing Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) and returning him to Israel. The film opens with Vogel attacking Rachel and almost escaping before Rachel shoots him down. In 1997, this is the story that the older Rachel (Helen Mirren), David (Ciarán Hinds), and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) have claimed but as Rachel looks back on the mission, the true details are revealed. Rachel, David, and Stephan must eventually face what they have hidden from their children and the rest of the world.
There may be three main operatives, but the story truly belongs to Rachel. Ironically, even though Rachel is the protagonist, we gain a better understanding of David and Stephan. David is out to avenge his parents who were killed in the Holocaust but he doesn’t want to execute Vogel on the spot. He wants him brought back to Israel and publicly tried. Stephan is the charming leader of the mission, but he loses his cool as their best laid plan falls apart and jeopardizes his career aspirations. But Rachel’s motives are nebulous. She believes in the mission and she’s personally invested not only as a Jew but also because her mother died in the Holocaust. However, it’s tough to tell what she wants overall. She’s a reactive character who plays the emotions scene to scene.
Putting the movie on Chastain’s shoulders reveals both her strengths and weaknesses as an actress. Her performance is surface and I feel I need to explain what I mean when I say that since it’s usually meant as an insult. Granted, all actors give surface performance because that’s how we know what they’re thinking. But the best actors know how to provide restraint and don’t always feel the need to go big. Chastain, on the other hand, always puts it out there. That’s perfect when she’s playing her cover on the mission because Rachel has to convince her targets. But when dealing with the character’s romantic entanglements or listening to Vogel’s mind games, the performance becomes obvious and predictable. The character seems far too fragile to be tasked with such an important mission. It doesn’t help that she gets her ass kicked by a 65-year-old man.
That plot point obviously isn’t Chastain’s fault but one the script’s many shortcomings. The movie’s greatest stretch is in the second act where the Israelis are stuck in their safe house with Vogel and he gets inside their heads. It’s brooding, intense, and forces those involved—or at least Rachel and David since Stephan is mostly absent—to confront their fears and their personal investment in the mission. Once again, there’s an obvious performance as Christensen goes the full Lecter and I couldn’t help but wonder if Mossad agents had really crappy training since they so easily let Vogel screw with them. Granted, there’s not much time for a slow burn since director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, not football) seems far more invested with his first and third act spy thrillers. The scenes of Rachel, David, and Stephan working their mission are well-executed but uninteresting when compared to the time stuck inside the safe house and the moral question raised by how the team deals with the complicated end to their mission. Then the movie returns to spy mode as 1997 Rachel must finally deal with the ramifications of the team’s decision in 1966 and the script flat-out answers the question of which is more important: truth or justice?
I’m not writing off Jessica Chastain. I’ve seen her in four films now and never has she given a “bad” performance. It also feels slightly unfair to throw all of the blame on her when the script poorly defines her character and doesn’t even know how to define its own story.