Quiet, Cold, and Haunting: A Review of Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man

Film: A Most Wanted Man
Director: Anton Corbijn
Primary Cast: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Daniel Bruhl, Nina Hoss, Grigoriy Dobrygin
U.S. Release Date: 25 July 2014

I’ll be honest and say that I really only went to see A Most Wanted Man, because I wanted to see Phillip Seymour Hoffman in it. I should also confess that I saw the film 5 days ago, but was silly and waited forever to put together a review. That said, along with SnowpiercerA Most Wanted Man is my favorite film of the summer so far (I haven’t seen much and Boyhood isn’t playing in my city yet, but still).

Quietly intense, coldly thought-provoking, hauntingly pessimistic, and and undeniably sure of its self, A Most Wanted Man is a refreshing change of pace from more typical summer fare.

Based on the 2008 novel by John le Carré, A Most Wanted Man is set in Hamburg, Germany several years after 9/11. After a failed mission in Beirut, Günther Bachmann (Hoffman) runs a small counter-terrorism unit  in Hamburg that is short on resources, but not on determination. The plot isn’t the sort that is easily summarized, so I’m not going to bother.
Read A Most Wanted Man

Though its trailer pretends it’s a thriller, A Most Wanted Man is much more of a (somewhat grim) character study, and Hoffman as Günther is clearly the star of the show. Though viewers leave A Most Wanted Man knowing practically nothing about Günther’s personal life (he may not even have one) and very little about his past (it includes some failure and betrayal, but god knows what else), he and the work he does are the focus of the film. For the most part, Günther comes off as world-weary and even just plain tired. Still, at times, he is full of energy even in spite of the bureaucracy that traps and frustrates him. Strong, yet fragile, genuine, yet manipulative, Günther is not an easy man to pin-down. Still, he is fascinating, and, as a viewer, I could not help but grow attached to him, though he certainly has his flaws.

There are very few scenes in the film in which Günther is not shown consuming something (whether it be a cigarette, alcohol, or food). He is someone who cannot get enough, who is always working and never satisfied. He exists in a world and in a system that will always leave him wanting for more. Perhaps that is part of his problem.

Günther is determined, even stubborn, and one can’t help but feel that he genuinely deserves to have things go his way, but the film makes it clear that that is not enough; A Most Wanted Man declares that a strong desire to succeed and to have control does not in itself get the job done. Günther and his team work tirelessly. These people are devoted to their work, and their work envelops their entire lives. Still, they are often frustrated by apparently unavoidable obstacles like bureaucracy, the impatience of others, and betrayal. The film opens with an image of water lapping up against a stone wall. That water could continue to do so for years, and the wall would still be there. Yes, it would have been weakened, but it would still stand. Günther and his team are like the water in that they are relentless in adhering to their mission (regardless of their motivation for that mission). They do what they do and they will keep doing it, but the walls in their way remain and will probably do so until they die.

As many have noted, Hoffman does a great job in this film (why the hell wouldn’t he?). His performance as Günther is fully-realized, captivating, moving, and full of depth. It’s certainly possible that my experience of the film was colored by Hoffman’s death (how could it not be?), but I strongly believe that I would have reacted positively to Hoffman’s performance and to the film as a whole even if that were not the case.

The rest of the performances in the film are solid enough. Personally, I was pleasantly surprised by Rachel McAdams as the humanitarian lawyer Annabel Richter. Having never seen any of McAdams’s work, I was unsure of what to expect from her, but she does deliver.

Aside from Hoffman’s performance, the film’s real strength is in it’s ending. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s the sort of ending that changes not only how you view the film you’ve just seen, but the world around you as well. A Most Wanted Man challenges its viewers to questions certain assumptions they may have about the work of intelligence agencies, and that is a good thing.

Of course, A Most Wanted Man isn’t perfect and certainly isn’t for everyone. Those hoping to see a violent or fast-paced spy thriller will be disappointed. There is no visual spectacle in this film nor does anyone shoot a gun (at least, I’m pretty sure they don’t). There are no fast car chases, no steamy romances, and none of those characters that blur the line between secret agent and super hero. Additionally, the film’s somewhat slow plot, its refusal to give much explicit explanation, and it’s rather opaque characters may turn off some viewers (Not me though hahahaha). Some may also dislike the markedly distant feel of the entire film (if that makes sense), but for someone like me who favors spy movies short on expository explanation that prioritize ideas over action and cynicism over bombastic heroism, A Most Wanted Man is certainly worth seeing.

Thank you for reading. What did you think of A Most Wanted Man? Feel free to leave a comment below.

See PSH’s Oscar-Winning Performance in Capote

3 thoughts on “Quiet, Cold, and Haunting: A Review of Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man

  1. I loved this movie as well, and this was a very well-written review. I recently reviewed it, and I personally felt that Robin Wright gave a surprisingly weak performance. Do you have any thoughts on that?

    Also, on a side note, I too really enjoyed Snowpiercer and I’m glad to see someone else does as well. And definitely go see Boyhood, it’s terrific!

    • He Kevin,
      Sorry for the slow reply.
      I actually agree with you that Robin Wright was a weak point in the film. Her performance felt lazy (almost like she was Claire Underwood in a wig). But, given her relatively small role, I don’t think she managed to do much damage to the overall movie.
      And I did finally manage to see Boyhood (which I recently reviewed).

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