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.