Sunday, September 7, 2014

A MOST WANTED MAN Is a Gripping Thriller, and a Chilling Goodbye



- Damn. As a send-off to one of the greatest film actors of all time, A MOST WANTED MAN is a hell of a goodbye. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers a quietly ferocious performance as German spy Gunther Bachmann. It's the sort of role that Hoffman had perfected - the caged man, desperately trying to make things happen from a dimly-lit office, a boiling cauldron of ruthless efficiency mixed with simmering, anxious rage at the world around him. Adapted from a book by John le Carré, A MOST WANTED MAN takes on a similar affectation - it's a slow-burn thriller that quietly keeps ratcheting up the intensity, until it eventually boils over via a barn-burner of a climax.

If you're familiar with le Carre, then you know that his spy stories are practically the antithesis of the swaggering James Bond stereotype. His spies work in bland office buildings and deal with international threats not with showy force, but with a weary, grim determination to prevent catastrophe. The recent adaptation of le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy captured the aesthetic to perfection. But honestly, I liked A MOST WANTED MAN better. To me, the plotting seemed tighter, the intensity level higher, and the masterful performance of Hoffman more noteworthy than any one performance in Tinker Tailor.

The film has the sort of satisfyingly-constructed plot - a rare beast in movies these days - that takes its time revealing all of its secrets, but that makes a sort of clockwork sense when it does. Hoffman's Gunther is convinced that Abdullah, a prominent Muslim philanthropist, is in fact sneaking a portion of donations to his charitable causes to terrorist cells - but Gunther has no hard evidence to prove this. However, Gunther devises a complex and risky plan to take down his mark. He finds Jamal - a disillusioned Arab immigrant who stands to inherit a large amount of money from his deceased father. Gunther then secretly recruits Jamal's young lawyer, Annabel (Rachel McAdams) to manipulate her client into donating the inheritance money to Abdullah. The money, tracked by Gunther and his spy colleagues, can then be traced back to Abdullah. The trick is convincing Jamal to donate the money, and convincing Abdullah that nothing is amiss.

What ensues is a riveting cat-and-mouse game, with Gunther pulling the various strings. Not only does he have to move mountains to get Annabel on his side, but he also has to get a slippery banker (Willem Dafoe) and his American counterparts in the CIA (namely, a hard-nosed rival played by Robin Wright) onboard with his risky plan. Increasingly, Gunther's plan faces resistance, and increasingly, he faces the moral dilemma of how to catch his prey without also taking down everyone else whom he's roped into his scheme.

The cast here is completely top-notch, and seeing each of them play off of Hoffman is a treat. Robin Wright totally owns her role as a take-no-prisoners American agent. Dafoe is dynamic as usual. And McAdams - though her French accent wavers here and there - is also quite good. Mehdi Dehbi plays Jamal as nervous and unstable - which makes his character all the more of a ticking time bomb. But really, this is Hoffman's show. The actor looks in rough shape in the movie - perhaps a sign of some of his real-life personal troubles. But the look suits the character, as Gunther is a single-minded careerist, a smoker and a drinker whose obsessiveness causes him to neglect hygiene, nutrition, health, and niceties.

Like I said, the movie seems to take on the trappings of Gunther. Director Anton Corbijn creates a cinematic powder-keg: a movie that moves along at a methodical beat, but that brims with intensity. The film paints its primary location, Hamburg, as a grey purgatory. Grey buildings, grey skies, - and grey rooms, sparsely-furnished, that encourage the sort of grim worldview that Gunther possesses. At times, the movie loses momentum and feels a little *too* methodical, but there is, also, a confidence that we're watching the pieces of the larger puzzle fall into place.

To that end, the film's final ten minutes or so prove incredibly rewarding, but also bittersweet. As Gunther's long-simmering plan finally played out, I found myself on the edge of my seat. And then, I've got to admit, I started getting chills. In the film's riveting final sequence, the themes of the movie begin to coalesce, and Hoffman's driven Gunther faces down the void, as his best-laid plans begin to crumble. By accident, Gunther's final cry to the heavens is a chilling echo of the actor who plays him - a defeated curse from a man who, as good as he was, just couldn't come out the other side on top. The final, silent tracking shot of Gunther driving away is a gut-punch - a farewell, also, to Hoffman. Here is one of the great actors, showing us yet again how to embody our frustration, powerlessness, impotency, and rage with the universe. No one else was as good. And so, A MOST WANTED MAN is not just a gripping thriller, but it's one last master-class from Hoffman. A final bow that, somehow, feels both tragic and yet uniquely appropriate.

My Grade: A-

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