Debt, The (United States/Spain/Peru, 2015)

September 08, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Debt, The Poster

Perhaps the most complimentary thing that can be said about Barney Elliott’s directorial debut, The Debt, is that it has the best of intentions. Unfortunately, a worthy message doesn’t necessarily equate to a good movie and, in this case, the inequality is evident. With a tortured structure, uneven pacing, and the specter of the oft-reviled “white savior,” The Debt’s narrative never rises to the level of its thesis about economic exploitation.

The Debt has three distinct stories and, although the screenplay eventually meets the viewer’s expectations that they will somehow come together, the intersection, when it occurs, is less than satisfying – a forced contrivance used to emphasize Elliott’s thematic conceit. The characters also fall victim to this artifice. They act and react in ways that are motived less by true human impulses than the need to divert the story in a particular direction.

The first piece of The Debt’s puzzle focuses on Oliver Campbell (Stephen Dorff), a manager at a financial firm who is in charge of a major Peruvian land deal. Oliver’s approach is slow, methodical, and calculated but he is forced to accelerate his process and display a degree of uncharacteristic ruthlessness when his boss, Nathan (David Strathairn), decides to sell off current assets to rectify a cash flow problem. Given one week to close the deal or see everything go down the drain, Oliver heads to Peru along with his protégé, Richardo (Alberto Ammann), who knows the area. 

Meanwhile, in Peru, we’re introduced to a crusty farmer, Florentino Gamarra (Amiel Cayo), and his young son, Diego (Marco Antonio Ramirez). Florentino sees through the “promises” of those representing the dealmakers and refuses to sell, believing that the expected jobs and prosperity won’t materialize. As the lone holdout among the landowners, Florentino becomes target #1 for Oliver, who discovers an opportunity soon after he’s on the ground.

Disconnected, and seemingly belonging to a different movie altogether, is the situation of Maria Ruiz (Elsa Olivero), whose mother is suffering from advanced rheumatoid arthritis. Desperate to obtain treatment and having exhausted all the normal channels of an overworked social service system, Maria tries an unorthodox approach to get what she needs. When an attempted seduction of a doctor fails, she opts for blackmail and, through that action, her piece of the narrative dovetails with the segments featuring Oliver and Florentino.

Narratively, The Debt sometimes feels forced and artificial. Oliver’s transformation from ruthless corporate shill to guilt-riddled crusader isn’t believable and requires an unsurprising twist/revelation to kick-start it. His subsequent actions, although they may masquerade as seemingly solid drama, don’t make a lot of sense. What are they solving or changing? If anything, they illustrate the powerlessness of the individual in world ruled by corrupt governments and greedy corporations, and I don’t think that’s what Elliott intends to show in this instance (although it may match his worldview). Oliver’s return of certain documents to Florentino might salve his conscience but is the distressed farmer expected to show gratitude?

Equally as problematic as Oliver’s moral awakening is Maria’s story. Every time The Debt switches to her segment, we’re left scratching out heads trying to figure out what she’s doing in the film. When the answer is provided with less than 15 minutes remaining in the running time, it’s as contrived as other elements. In trying to make a statement about how the decision of one character unintentionally damages another, Elliott becomes guilty of trying to do too much. Maria’s fateful choice seems like an afterthought and there’s little power or poignancy in its consequences.

The Debt features a number of strong performances, including Elsa Olivero as Maria, Amiel Cayo as the stubborn Florentino, and Stephen Dorff as Oliver. Dorff, incidentally, has played the “white savior” role before. In 1992, his role in The Power of One marked the first time I had ever heard the term used. His function in The Debt isn’t as overt, but his arc of redemption with its associated scuttling of a bad land deal (at least temporarily) for the Peruvian farmers, makes him the outsider whose interference saves the natives.

To the extent that Elliott wants to highlight the ruthlessness of multinational corporations when exploiting the natural resources of underdeveloped countries, he achieves some success. The message is impossible to miss. The problem is that the dramatic elements of the film are tailored entirely toward emphasizing that theme rather than telling a solid story through which it can emerge. Whether or not the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to mediocre cinema sometimes can be.

Debt, The (United States/Spain/Peru, 2015)

Director: Barney Elliott
Cast: Stephen Dorff, David Strathairn, Carlos Bardem, Alberto Ammann, Elsa Olivero, Amiel Cayo, Marco Antonio Ramirez
Home Release Date: 2018-09-08
Screenplay: Barney Elliott
Cinematography: Bjorn Stale Bratberg
Music: Jesus Diaz, Fletcher Ventura
U.S. Distributor: Level 33 Entertainment
Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 2016-07-08
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Mature Themes, Disturbing Images)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: In English and Spanish with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1