The picture, without any explanation, is just some photograph.
Then I hand you a picture of you and your father. You're ten, he's in his late thirties. He's holding you. Both of you are smiling. He's wearing a t-shirt and shorts, it's a sunny day, and it's obvious he has a prosthetic leg. The leg. You remember how he lost it: a car accident.
Now I had you the first picture again. Oh...this is YOUR dad, at seventeen, with his first car. He had told you how much he loved that car. "Until that day...". The wreck changed the course of your dad's entire life. For better and for worse. But here he is BEFORE. And you see all the joy he had in that moment, all the freedom of youth, the vast potentials. And you know how the story plays out. The sudden quenching of potential.
Director: John Madden (BOOM)
Written by: Matthew Vaugh and Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass, X-men: First Class) and Peter Straughan
1965 leads: Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas, Jesper Christensen
1997 counter-parts: Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Wilkenson
The Debt time-shifts much like the photos in the intro to this inquiry, alternating from 1965 to 1997.
Two of the 1965 scenes are repeated, shot for shot: the escape of Dieter Vogel (Jesper); and the return of the agents to Israel, the exit from the plane, the march on the tarmac. The scenes appear early. And they reappear at the climax. This repetition utilizes the effect I described in the intro. The first time we see the scenes, we have zero connection to the characters. There's no importance. It's like looking at the photograph of a stranger.
But an hour an a half later we're given the same scenes. This time we know who the characters are, we know what has happened, we know everything. The second time we watch these scenes: they're SUPER SATURATED with drama. (There's a 1997 scene repeated as well, with the same effect).
Now, this is a common technique. And The Debt isn't remarkable for using it (albeit, I will argue The Debt utilizes it better than any movie I've watched before (yes, better than Inception did by repeating it's opening conversation between Leo and an aged, Limbo-imprisoned Watanabe)). The Debt elevates itself by what it doesn't repeat.
In the first half of the movie, a lot is going on in the 1997 setting we don't really grasp. A guy commits suicide and we don't know why. There's connections and tensions we can't begin to fathom. After the 1965 story plays out, a lot of the '97 mystery is clarified.
But the viewer isn't allowed to contemplate the cause (1965) and effect (1997) because we are propelled on a thriller mission that takes up the final 15 minutes. A lot of the drama is out the door at this point and we're watching an action movie (the viewer-tension coming from a character doing illegal things and almost getting caught). The movie is saying "HEY, Look here at this ACTION, and stop thinking for a few minutes." As I said, this is non-stop for the last 10-15 minutes. And I think the deflated drama and change-over to mainstream espionage bummed out a lot of reviewers which is why some are calling the movie "uneven". They see a failure in the structure. I see genius.
The movie is ACTION ACTION ACTION and ends. And you're like...whoa, wait, what??! The Debt, by not stewing in the '97 drama (the same way it does the '65) leaves the responsibility to the viewer to comprehend what is going on.
See, I hate passive viewing experiences. I don't like EVERYTHING BEING EXPLAINED TO ME AND WRAPPED UP NICELY. I want some loose ends. I want to have to make connections. Inception did a good job balancing the viewer's role: the film explained all the rules of the dream world to you (so we're passive, since we don't have to figure everything out on our own) and then preceded without further explanation. We're left to decide if the second-half worked based off the knowledge provided by the first-half. So the second-half is an active viewing experience. But the action is so jam-packed we don't have time to analyze, which is why people couldn't stop talking about Inception: it's only after the movie ended you could breathe and think. The Debt does the same thing. Except The Debt's structure is more complex than Inception.
Christopher Nolan wanted people to understand Inception. The movie is a work of architecture, a many-storied building. Despite its size and volume, there are rules, there are patterns, there's a system in place. Given time to roam and explore, you become familiar and what was confusing suddenly makes sense. It's like the first time you go to NYC and you try to ride the subway. WTF is this? But once you do it several times, the apparent tangles evaporate and you realize it's an intricate system, not a chaotic one.
The Debt is not a building but a photo album. And while a picture is a thousand words, it's never the whole story. By collecting the images and flipping back and forth from newer to later, newer to later, newer to later, one begins to not only see the fate of a stranger's life, feel the inevitability of it all, but you too can be haunted by their wrong decisions and the ghosts of futures that never were.
So maybe you watch The Debt and you're not like me (I thought it was sweet as hell) and you're like "okay, that was okay." or you're like "that makes no sense and sucks." Give it time. Think about it, be an ACTIVE viewer. See it again. And what you'll discover is that the film is incredible.
Did I like it:
Hell yeah. It's my favorite movie of the year so far. I think it's cooler than Munich (I get Munich is important because it's accurate, but, when it comes down to which movie I would rather watch, I'll pick The Debt 99/100). And I would say it's very, very similar to Inception in more than just the aspects I described above. Explaining myself would take a lot of words. Maybe another time.
Interesting note: this movie was filmed in 2009. It was supposed to come out last year, but Disney acquiring Miramax delayed the released.
I thought the accents were good. Some reviewers said they were up and down. But maybe I'm just bad at deciding what makes a good accent.
The acting is phenomenal.
My favorite part is when Chastain can't leave the apartment. And we're seeing this transition in the psyche of all the characters, an erosion.
I don't think the shot-selection is particularly strong. The opening scene has the only shots I would call "artsy". There are very few medium long shots ("medium long" meaning a shot that shows a person head to toe), fewer long shots (you have the same scope as if you were standing 10-20 feet from someone), and I can't think of any extreme long shots (like showing a large crowd, or a city in the distance, or an expanse of mountains, or the person from 200 feet away). I can sort of justify this because a lot of the plot has a sense of claustrophobia about it (all these characters feel BOUND to various responsibilities, and that can be choking), so medium close-ups and close-ups and extreme close-ups keep the viewer "contained". But I think contrast is necessary. Even if only once. The last shot should have been a long or extreme long shot, for reasons you'll understand when you see it.
(Hm...but you could argue there being no contrast means that there really is NO running away from the squeeze of responsibility....Whatever.)
Jessica Chastain is my favorite actress. I've never really had one. She is now it.
What It's Good For:
-lessons in acting
-attempts to translate the feelings of the characters to the viewers
-draw for Jewish audience
-not everyone will get what's going on
-you may not like feeling what the characters are feeling
-accents may bother you
-movie could feel uneven
% Character / % Actor's personality
Worthington: 80/20 (maybe 75/25, but maybe 85/15)
Csokas: 85/15 (I don't know him though, so could be higher, could be less)
Mirren: 80/20 (reviewers talk about the disconnect from Chastain's verison of "Rachel" and Mirren's and I think that's because Mirren had a higher P% than Chastain, so was more Mirren (stoic))
Hinds: 90/10 (don't know him, believed the character)
Christensen: 90/10 (don't know him)
-Madden: Shakespeare in Love
-Chastain: Tree of Life, The Help
-Movies involving Holocaust-fallout: Munich; The Odessa File; Julia; Marathon Man
-Circular narratives: Inception; Fight Club; Hero; City of God