An money hungry American businessman, a struggling woman in need of financial assistance, and cultural clashes are tossed into The Debt, a melodrama of familiar fare even though it takes place in foreign land. A story about imperial opportunism, familial love and patriotic loyalty has the strength of its convictions, just not the means.
That is to say, one man says things like ‘debts need to be paid, it’s what makes the world go round,’ another weeps about her sickly mother, and another tries to fight his literal and metaphoric land. They’re stereotypes, some of which are uplifted by singular performances and beautiful cinematography.
Stephen Dorff plays Oliver Campbell an instantly recognizable representation of an elitist, careless shark who is ready to put people out of money, work, and home make his own pay day. A hedge-fund manager, he and his associate are situated in Peru, ready to reap rewards by taking advantage of the country’s debt crisis. It’s like The Big Short, South American edition…just without the style, substance, and humour.
Oliver’s maneuvering also puts him at odds with his boss David Strathairn over its effectiveness, and his pal Ricardo over its ethics.
Oliver’s main story is one of three The Debt, in a failed attempt to connect business dealings with people on the ground, the cause and effect of a failing financial system. María (Elsa Olivero) is a desperate nurse whose personal and professional life are plagued by the financial crises, while elsewhere a farmer’s way of life is threatened when Oliver and company look to take his land.
The Debt has all the excitement of actually sitting down and negotiating a contract, though it also has the care. While Barney Elliott excels in his directorial debut at creating tension and intimacy where there otherwise really isn’t any, pacing is sluggish and the story often buries itself in minutiae. Oliver is a one-note character, while Maria shows more complexity in her dilemma.
The film has meaning and emotion, it just can unearth it with any effectiveness. However much tension is squeezed through shaky, intimate close ups, and a somber, grey filter cast over every setting – save for those glimpses of beautiful Peruvian highlands –The Debt falls short.