John Madden's The Debt feels like a talented but glib college student trying to pass a modern European history exam with an essay on the repercussions of the Holocaust and the founding of Israel—it volunteers answers, but has no feeling for the questions it raises. The movie is superficially fluid but spiritually muddled. It takes the old canard about how those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, and stages that lesson as literally as possible. It demands another axiom: If you have nothing to say with your movie, saying it very seriously will not help.
The film's confusion is not merely thematic; it also bungles at the most basic levels. Remaking an Israeli film, Ha-Hov, Madden positions Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds as aging former Mossad agents, then rewinds to their fateful 1966 mission in East Berlin—but he casts two young men (Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) who could each be young versions of either Wilkinson or Hinds. (The best way to orient yourself is to figure out which guy might grow up to look like he killed a drifter before breakfast—that's Li'l Wilkinson.) Jessica Chastain, however, is unmistakable: She was the ethereal mother in The Tree of Life and the kind soul in The Help, and now, as mini-Mirren, plays a woman whose first instinct is to try and make the best of bad situations. This disposition is not all that helpful when you're locked in an apartment with three men, two of them rivals for your romantic attentions and the other a Nazi doctor.
These scenes are undeniably claustrophobic, and the movie gains some power from physical intimacy—Chastain captures the vile doc (a nasty Jesper Christensen) by going undercover for gynecological exams, and later gives him a very close shave. But as the Mossad fighters grow increasingly rattled, the picture begins to abandon moral inquiry in favor of plot contrivances. By its final act, The Debt bears an unfortunate resemblance to another Mirren vehicle, the AARP assassin flick Red. It's grim, but not the least bit serious. R.
60 SEE IT: The Debt opens Wednesday at Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Cinetopia, Bridgeport, Evergreen, Fox Tower, Hilltop, Lloyd Center, Sherwood, Tigard and Wilsonville.