Anton Corbijn’s brooding espionage-thriller “A Most Wanted Man” doesn’t follow any popular spy movie blueprint or formula and the movie is better for it. It won’t take audiences long to notice the intentionally deliberate pacing, dialogue-driven suspense, and strong character focus. All of these elements create a very grounded and methodical procedural that relies heavily on great performances and a strong screenplay from Andrew Bovell.
“A Most Wanted Man” isn’t just a unique thriller. It also has the sad distinction of being Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s final performance. He plays Günther Bachmann, the head of a German anti-terrorist group. He’s a heavy smoker, drinks a lot, and often times looks unkept. In fact, in an unfortunate case or art imitating reality, he looks terribly unhealthy. But Hoffman takes whatever personal struggles he may have been going through and injects them into this character creating someone full of raw authenticity.
When a Chechen Muslim on Interpol’s radar illegally enters Hamburg Günther and his team begin tracking him down in hopes of catching bigger fish in a potential terrorist ring. Complicating things is a German security official (Rainer Bock) who wants to apprehend the Chechen instead of using him. Then there is an American intelligence agent named Sullivan (played with fascinating mystery by Robin Wright). No one knows her intent and Günther doesn’t trust her from the start.
The story spins in several different directions and we are kept on our toes by some interesting twists and character developments. It becomes a movie of ‘who is a terrorist and who isn’t’ and ‘who can I trust’. Watching Hoffman navigate through this maze of clues and information is half the fun. Willem Dafoe shows up as a banker with a very shady past and Rachel McAdams has a hefty role as a human rights attorney who latches on to the Chechen suspect’s case. Both characters play key roles in the unfolding story.
When you’re working with this type of material you have to trust your cast and they are all good here. I still find myself drawn to Wright’s performance and the unshakable confidence she brings to her character. Dafoe is also spot-on and many of the film’s great scenes have him in them. McAdams
is good although she often has trouble keeping her accent. But this is truly Hoffman’s film and he strips away every shred of showmanship in portraying this sad and weary soul whose life revolves around his work. He is obsessive to a fault, but that’s also what helps to make him such a compelling character.
“A Most Wanted Man” may not be for everyone and that’s a shame. It’s a slow burn meticulously built around nuggets of information we glean from conversations, interviews, and observations. It’s compelling stuff – crisp and razor sharp. There was a moment or two where I wasn’t sure what was being discussed and there are a couple of lulls. But even in those moments there is still Hoffman’s sublime performance. If there had to be a final performance this a fitting one – conscientious, complex, and forceful. It’s a clear reminder of the natural ability this man had as an actor.
VERDICT – 4 STARS
The last time we saw acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson was in 2007 with his sensational drama “There Will Be Blood”. With it he solidified his position as a film critic’s favorite. Now he’s back with his next movie “The Master”. As with every other feature film Anderson has made, he both wrote and directed this audacious drama that can sometimes be completely captivating and other times utterly frustrating. There are some award worthy performances and loads of ambition, just as you would expect from a Paul Thomas Anderson feature. But just as there were moments where I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, there were also times when the story seemed to bog down in the deliberate pacing and slight self-indulgence that keeps this from being a true classic. Nonetheless Anderson presses all the right critics buttons so this will be a contender come awards season.
No one can deny Anderson’s filmmaking skills. “The Master” looks every bit of an epic, landmark film. There are a number of scenes that stand out due to their framing and camera work alone. Anderson uses several amazing tracking shots sometimes shifting focus three or four times while still maintaining a single fluid shot. He also uses several fantastic locations and captures them with his stylish and precise camera work. I also have to mention the way he recreates America in 1950 both narratively and visually. The wardrobes, hairstyles, furnishings, etc. all work perfectly right down to the smallest details. Anderson takes no shortcuts on selling the audience on the period and that’s one of the reasons it’s so easy to attach yourself to the story.
It’s in this 1950 America that we are introduced to Freddie Quell. He’s played by Joaquin Phoenix who gives the performance of his career. While not as breathtaking as Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood”, Phoenix is magnetic portraying a man emotionally scarred from his time in World War 2, or at least that’s what I presume. Freddie’s life is in shambles. He’s a raging alcoholic who resorts to drinking his own concoctions made from paint thinner and any other chemical he can get his hands own. He also has a twisted sex disorder that pops up here and there. His alcoholism shows to be a burden that’s destroying his life and in turn plays an important part in the film. On the other hand, his sex addiction felt terribly underwritten and only contributed by adding a handful of uncomfortable scenes that quite frankly I could have done without. But as I said, Phoenix is brilliant and there’s no way he should be denied an Oscar nomination for this bold performance.
Freddie ends up crossing paths with a charismatic leader of a group called “The Cause” named Lancaster Dodd (wonderfully played by Philip Seymour-Hoffman). Dodd is a self-proclaimed philosopher and intellectual with a steady and devoted group of followers. He also has a way with words and Freddie is drawn to Dodd and his movement. Dodd takes a special liking to Freddie at one point calling him his guinea pig but clearly growing more fond of him later. Dodd is able to suppress Freddie’s mental issues to the point where Freddie begins to buy into his teachings. But his inner turmoil resurfaces on several occasions making him more and more conflicted.
The story often moves with an amazing rhythm and Phoenix and Hoffman share some mesmerizing scenes together. But for such a hyped picture, I was surprised to see the overall lack of plot. I mean “The Master” features some of the best scenes you’ll see in the theaters this year, but honestly, there’s not a lot that happens in the long running time. But a bigger problem with “The Master” is that for the entire film Anderson keeps the audience at arm’s length from what we are seeing. We’re never allowed to fully get to know the characters who truly are the driving forces behind the entire picture. Anderson wants us to do a lot of guesswork and come to our own conclusions. But for me, a little less ambiguity and more intimacy with the characters would have been a big plus.
I don’t mean for this review to have such a negative tone. There are some really good things to like about “The Master”. Anderson’s style of filmmaking is about as good as you will find and it really shines here. The movie looks and feels right at home in post-World War 2 1950 and the cinematography will blow you away. The film is also helped by tremendous performances from Phoenix and Hoffman and I didn’t even talk about Amy Adams’ strong work. Expect to hear all of their names when the Oscar nominations are announced. But while Anderson’s story is good, it doesn’t pack the punch of some of his other pictures particularly “There Will Be Blood”. It’s fascinating to watch these characters but I couldn’t help but want more. That combined with a few pacing issues and a couple of scenes I could have done without keep this from being the Best Picture frontrunner that many are touting it as.