When I was tasked with reviewing film about an international financial deal set in Peru, I was worried that I might not be the man for the job. I’ll admit, movies about big business, banks, and financial stuff often go right over my head. Worse still, and I’m not proud of this, I know very little about the current political situation in Peru.
As I understand it, an American company is in the business of purchasing bonds from Peruvian landowners. Business is so good that they currently own 25% of Peru’s debt. The Debt focuses on three intersecting stories: a Peruvian nurse (Elsa Olivero) who is desperate to get approval for her mother’s arthritis surgery, a cynical farmer (Amiel Cayo) who refuses to sell his land, and two American businessmen (Alberto Ammann and Stephen Dorff) who are running out of time to close the deal of a lifetime.
I may not know much about corporate wheeling and dealing or even about South American politics, but, as a film enthusiast, I know drama. As a counselor, I know people and can tell when the relationships and motivations of individuals ring true. As a sub-contractor, I know what it’s like to worry about money. And as a human being, I know what it’s like to work long hours and know the strain it can put on a relationship.
So, when watching and thinking about a particular movie, I can tell when a writer or director understands their characters and the world around them and when they’re just faking. And The Debt, well-meaning and self-important as it may be, is faking.
Not that there’s a single bad performance in the whole ensemble (though I’m always a little irritated when I see David Strathairn’s talents wasted). Actually, the script does manage to show serious signs of life in two harrowing scenes, one of which it seriously sells out later in the movie. Mostly, however, first-time feature director Barney Elliott borrows way too much from multi perspective films like Babel without replicating any of the feelings that those works managed to bring out of us. Every character and every conflict are introduced in scenes that seem ripped from other movies; and most scenes serve only to lay the groundwork for the inevitable climax where all stories implausibly intersect.
Again, I can’t fault the acting. Ammann’s self-doubt looks good on him and plays well off of Dorff, whose character is under way too much pressure to leave room for moral conflict. Olivero looks appropriately exhausted and Cayo is convincingly resilient. There just isn’t enough drama or tension here, especially considering how high the stakes are for its characters.