[This is a re-post of my A Most Wanted Man review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The film opens in limited release this weekend.]
The spy thriller genre—like all genres—has its fair share of tropes and clichés. The best entries are ones that take the foundation of the genre and expand upon it or put a new spin on the material. Director Anton Corbijn’s latest film, A Most Wanted Man, is a solid and sharply smart entry into the spy genre that manages to explore dark characters and difficult topics while foregoing the typical action-heavy formula, sidestepping audience expectations in the process. This is not a film that takes shortcuts just to make its audience happy, and though the final results may not delve as deep into some of its themes as one would expect, A Most Wanted Man still manages to be an involving, tense, and slow-burn thriller. Read my full review after the jump.
Based on the novel of the same name by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy author John le Carre, A Most Wanted Man revolves around the pursuit of a possible terrorist in Hamburg, Germany. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Gunter Bachmann, the serious, work-focused head of a group of intelligence operatives who “do the things Germany can’t legally do.” When a half-Chechen, half-Russian illegal immigrant named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) shows up in Hamburg with possible terrorist motives, the German and U.S. governments take notice. As Bachmann’s team was one of the first to spot Karpov, they convince the German government to allow them to keep an eye on the suspect instead of arresting him outright, so that they may see what kind of contacts he makes.
After being taken in by a Muslim woman and her son, Karpov is put in touch with Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a lawyer who specializes in advocating for people who may be taken advantage of by the law. Karpov wishes to seek out a wealthy banker, Thomas Brue (Willem Dafoe), who supposedly is in possession of a hefty inheritance from Karpov’s criminal father. As the plot unfolds, Bachmann comes into contact with an American CIA spy (Robin Wright) as questions continue to swirl regarding whether Karpov is planning a terrorist attack, plans to fund a different cell altogether, or is simply innocent.
Corbijn directs A Most Wanted Man with an understated intensity. The spy genre formula teaches the audience to expect something big to happen (an explosion, a gunfight, etc.) after the tension has been wound tight, but Corbijn slowly winds the tension up, then very slowly winds it back down again, only to then switch back to an increase. It could make for a frustrating watch for some, but I found it to be effective and in keeping with Corbijn’s central theme: after all this work, what’s the payoff?
9/11 didn’t just shake America, it affected the entire world. In telling a “War on Terror” story from a foreign point of view, Corbijn explores these issues on a global scale. Wright’s American CIA character plays a nice foil for Bachmann (she conducts her meetings with him in a fancy high-rise, he brings her to a dive bar), and when Bachmann asks her if she ever questions why they do what they do, she unconvincingly responds, “To make the world a better place. Isn’t that enough?” Bachmann spends his life tracking down terrorists, and when the German or U.S. government steps in and arrests his target, that man’s spot is simply taken by another eager terrorist. It’s a seemingly unwinnable war, but Bachmann is working towards finding a larger endgame that could actually make a real difference.
There are times when A Most Wanted Man plays out more like an episode of Homeland than a character-centric thriller, but the charisma of the cast keeps things on track for the most part. Hoffman’s performance as Bachmann is bold and enigmatic, and he plays the puzzling figure with a mixture of exhaustion and determination, all the while buoyed by a constant layer of loneliness. Hoffman’s unspoken work in the film is just as affecting—if not moreso—than his dialogue sequences, and he handles it all with ease.
Corbijn devotes a significant amount of time to his supporting characters, and McAdams, Dafoe, and Dobrygin all do fine work even if their individual arcs are all a tad unfulfilling. Then again, Corbijn’s story is not interested in wrapping things up with a tight bow, so it’s fitting that his characters seem to linger in a state of uncertainty and regret.
Though the pacing can sometimes be a bit misleading, A Most Wanted Man is a smart, slow-burn thriller that refuses to veer into the conventional for the sake of entertaining beats. Hoffman commands every scene that he’s in with a wonderfully intense lead performance, and the film as a whole is an involving, character-centric piece. While it feels like Corbijn could have dug a little deeper with regards to the film’s thoughts on the War on Terror, it’s still refreshing to see an outsider’s perspective on the post-9/11 world, and told under the guise of the spy thriller genre no less.