The Debt

photo What do Tree of Life, The Help, The Debt and the upcoming Coriolanus all have in common? Critical buzz, Oscar pedigrees, and…Jessica Chastain.

I’m starting to lose my faith in the idea of coincidence.

Jessica Chastain is a 30-year old actress who has come out of nowhere to take Hollywood by storm. 2011 is not just her introduction, it is her coronation. I can’t remember the last time an actress appeared on the scene with such presence, production or performance. We would all be wise to take note.

I first saw Chastain in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life earlier this year, where she not only holds her own against Brad Pitt, but she matches and surpasses him with quiet force. I haven’t seen The Help yet, but word is she delivers an equally stunning performance. And the early buzz on Ralph Fiennes’ upcoming adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus should cement her in the movie-going consciousness.

But, according to her IMDB profile, she filmed The Debt before any of those and it is The Debt for which she deserves the most accolades.

After a long and painful August, September brings some welcome relief from the brain-dead summer with the release of this smart and purposeful film starring Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Worthington and the powerful Chastain.

Without wanting to give any key elements of the plot away, I will say The Debt is a smart and taut drama/thriller about vengeance, conscience, love and, ultimately, justice. The central plot revolves around the hunting and capture of an infamous Nazi doctor by three Israeli secret agents in communist East Berlin in the mid-‘60s. From there, the layers of the story emerge as director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) crafts a superbly riveting movie that holds you in its grasp from the first shot and never lets go.

Madden does some excellent work here, with help from a terrific script by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan, based on the 2007 Israeli film HaHov. You can see Vaughn’s contribution here the most as The Debt feels and looks much more like an action/thriller than it really should be, reflecting Vaughn’s most recent credits, Kick Ass and X-Men: First Class, both bonafide action movies that feature a strong psychological bent.

It is the psychological aspects of this film that give it its heft, and the actors are all up to the task, even Worthington, who hadn’t shown me much before now. Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson are stellar, as always, but, again, it is Jessica Chastain’s quietly forceful performance that stands out.

While The Debt is being sold as a Helen Mirren movie, it is Chastain who makes the movie. It seems all too appropriate that in The Debt, Chastain plays the young Helen Mirren in flashback. I think Hollywood may have found its new Queen.