“A Most Wanted Man” delivers subtle, nuanced thrills


Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Compassionate subtlety, mounting paranoia, and meticulous detail take center stage in Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of John le Carre’s 2008 bestseller, “A Most Wanted Man.” Set in the post-9/11 world of counter-terrorism, the film doesn’t sport the melodrama present in many detective thrillers. Rather, it relies on the nuances delivered by a stellar cast to constantly keep audiences engaged amid the muted greys of the Eastern immigrant-laden community in Hamburg, Germany. This film blew every expectation I ever had of spy thrillers, as this was about as far from traditional as you can get and still be in the same genre. It’s not a “white-knuckle ride” or full of dramatic overtures of suggestive music. There aren’t wildly fired gunshots or huge reveals throughout the film. No, Corbijn’s genius is in the subtle control over his audience through small moments of tonal control that, in the last 15 minutes of the film, become extraordinarily important. It’s only as the credits roll that you understand just how gripping the film really was.
The focal point of the film is Gunther Bachmann, played brilliantly by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The old-school spy is delightfully seedy, coldly witty, and distrustful of everyone outside of his small, low-profile German intelligence team, a team which doesn’t exist in the eyes of German law and whose goal is to hunt down possible Islamist extremists or homeland security threats. Gunther’s latest tip-off leads him to the bedraggled Chechen-Russian illegal immigrant Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who is suspected of being a jihadist because of a vast amount of money he inherited from his late father. Gunther, who suspects Karpov might be able to lead him to well-known and respected Muslim scholar Dr. Faisal Abdullah, sends his team to intercept human rights attorney Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), who is trying to keep Karpov in Hamburg legally. Though she is initially repulsed by the idea of turning on her client, Gunther eventually convinces Richter to act as his mole and finagle the transfer of all of Karpov’s inheritance (an inheritance Karpov himself has no interest in, by the way) to Abdullah. To assist in this task is Thomas Brue (Willem Dafoe), whose father knew Karpov’s father and who is pressured into helping by a letter between the two that Karpov brings to him. Together, Gunther’s team works to subtly convince Karpov to sign over the money, all with Gunther’s reassurance to the reluctant Richter that Karpov will be allowed to remain in Hamburg and will not be deported back to Russia.
But then the last 15 minutes of the film happen, and it’s nigh impossible to guess the outcome of that.
Hoffman’s brilliance is shown in his masterful control over every single one of the characters, and his cool confidence makes the task feel believable and chilling in its execution, particularly as the movie creeps to its climax. Gunther must simultaneously juggle his team, Richter, Karpov, and Brue as well as the skepticism of other spy agencies, among them the legally recognized Hamburg intelligence agency and the prodding, exploitative Americans, whose interests are represented by none other than Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), a slippery yet formidable CIA agent hell-bent on discovering Gunther’s secrets. McAdams also shines in this production as the reluctant Annabel, handling the nuances of the budding relationship between herself and Karpov with grace and poise. Dafoe is beyond believable and acts as the perfect catalyst to bring each of the characters into contact with one another. Though some called the casting a risky decision, I think it paid off beautifully: every moment was drawn-out, full of tension, and perfectly nuanced. Hoffman in particular impressed me: his cool ability to understand that no one is inherently good or evil and the complications of the human condition play across the screen in a heartbreaking, entrancing fashion that left me wanting more.
“A Most Wanted Man” does not rush any aspect of its story, which only adds to the tension between characters that builds continuously throughout the film, and gives its audience no release until its final moments. It shows calm control over the characters’ development, the storyline, and the overwhelming number of specific details given in this world of justified paranoia and shame. The ending moments of the film pushed the audience off the cliff that the entire rest of it built up to, and I enjoyed every second of the fall. “A Most Wanted Man” left me breathless and in awe of just how far a failed spy can fall. The movie was delightful through and through, and the cast’s superior acting provided the constant feeling that there was something more just around the corner.
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