August 13, 2014

Out in the Cold

Movie Pick: A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour Hoffman

A MOST WANTED MAN (R) There's no escaping the pervasive melancholy at the center of the spy thriller, A Most Wanted Man. Much of that has to do with the serious, at times somber tone of the story, based on the novel by John le Carré and directed by Anton Corbijn (Control; The American). But it's the late Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance, his last leading role, that casts a sad, tragic pall over the proceedings. We will never get another great role from him. There is also, however, a quiet, subtle joy embedded in his performance, too. Although Hoffman's character, a troubled yet brilliant German intelligence agent named Günther Bachmann, is dour and physically in decline, Hoffman's under-played but insightful performance is magnificent to watch. Despite his own personal issues away from the camera lens (he died of a drug overdose in February at the age of 46), Hoffman's presence in A Most Wanted Man shows that he was still at the top of his game. It's one of his finest performances.

A Chechen Muslim immigrant, Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), illegally arrives in Hamburg and immediately sets off alarm bells with the intelligence community. Hamburg was where the 9/11 terrorists lived for a time and planned the attacks. Bachmann, forced to work in Hamburg as bureaucratic punishment after an assignment went awry, and his crew of anti-terrorist agents are determined to crack Karpov and get to the truth of why he's in the city. Bachmann, however, is not the only person interested in the mysterious, world-weary Karpov. A human-rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams) wants to keep Bachmann and a CIA agent (Robin Wright) away from him, and a secretive banker (Willem Dafoe) has longstanding business dealings with the Chechen. Bachmann and his operatives, played by Nina Hoss and Daniel Bruhl, believe that the haunted Karpov is possibly only a pawn in a much bigger and deadlier spy game involving an Arab philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi), who proselytizes for moderate Islam, and who Bachmann believes may actually be bankrolling terrorists. But there's also the theory that Karpov is not a terrorist at all.

Corbijn's third feature is cold and stylishly calculating. It's always riveting, although viewers expecting big action sequences à la the Bourne series will be seriously disappointed. This is a slow burner and a worthy companion piece to the excellent 2011 le Carré Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Gary Oldman.