A Most Wanted Man (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
6Nov/140

A Most Wanted Man (2014)

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Gunther Bachman is a man disgraced who is nearing expiration in his espionage position.  Hoping to prove his worth, he investigates the local Muslim community and a mysterious new arrival who may wish to channel funds into Al Qaeda.  Gunther has one last chance to prove himself, but most move carefully in the shadows to succeed.  Anton Corbijn (Control, The American) directs A Most Wanted Man, which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last feature-film roles.

Messy leadsAnton Corbijn is a director who has a clear and precise visual style and works with the cinematography to create beautiful frames for desolate worlds.  Corbijn has also, with the release of A Most Wanted Man, made three films that I have collectively given an apathetic shrug.  The American was the worst among these as it was just another existential assassin story with little of interest going on outside the screensaver-ready beauty of the photography.  With A Most Wanted Man it's clear that Corbijn is an expert at beautiful films that add up to little.

Yet, he is an expert all the same, and I can't deny what he does well.  All three of his major fiction films to date - Control, The American, and A Most Wanted Man - deal with expert craftsmen who are isolated from the outside world because of their expertise.  This motif also serves up a fine reason why all of his films have failed to resonate with me as I feel distanced, but not isolated, when watching these movies.

In A Most Wanted Man I never felt drawn into the isolation and despair of Gunther (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Instead I admired the creative use of architecture to differentiate between the barely controlled half-known realm of his spy work and the harmonious wood-pressed uniformity of banking establishments.  This admiration occurred during the film and not in retrospect, as the various elements demanded analysis right then and there instead of being woven into the story.  They're great accents, but not a draw.

Anton Corbjin loves the image of a man at work, and creates a long series of great shots around it.

Anton Corbjin loves the image of a man at work.

Coldness aside, A Most Wanted Man has great visual accents.  The previously mentioned use of architecture is just one of many notes I took about small details throughout the film.  My favorite was how no one is able to escape into the dark and every scene finds a diagetic use of this omnipresent amber brown lighting even when characters think they're going to get some quiet.  The editing also makes fantastic use of misdirection.   Corbjin moves from a text prologue about 9/11 to following a bearded and disheveled Muslim man who I thought was up to no good, but is really just seeking comfort.

This use of misdirection plays into some sly commentary throughout A Most Wanted Man.  One of the elements I loved about the story is how the modern espionage community and American rage after 9/11 has reversed the roles of Germany and the United States on a moral front.  American operative Martha (Robin Wright) stops short of recommending a final solution for the people who she thinks are a threat to the country while Gunther opts for a more finessed and long-term approach that involves less collateral damage.    The moral dimensions may not be as clear as aspects of Germany's past evils, but shows how easily a violent national shock could further push America into international terror campaigns.

When Corbijn pushes this thread of A Most Wanted Man the screen practically explodes.  One mid-film rendezvous between Gunther and Martha is the easy highlight.  Gunther tries to rebuff Martha's explanations of a blunt strategy in their investigation while a man beats on a woman in a separate plane of action in the background.  Without thinking Gunther quietly gets up from his seat and knocks the man cold from behind.  Wright gives Martha the perfect reaction - a mix of "I told you so" smugness and fear of how quickly this man, and by extension the international situation, can turn against her.  This moment is one of the few in the film that blend Corbjin's exacting visual style with the narrative in an intoxicating brew of cinema.

This is another example of Corbjin utilizing the frame for something other than beauty with Hoffman as a looming, but disinterested, specter over Rachel McAdams.

This is another example of Corbjin utilizing the frame for something other than desolate beauty with Hoffman as a looming, but disinterested, specter over Rachel McAdams.  I love how the tiles form de-facto bars despite her not being in a typical prison cell.

The rest of the film is content to let dreary people speculate about misdeeds without a lot of movement in any direction.  Now, this can be exciting, and A Most Wanted Man's slant on German espionage has been fruitful cinematic ground before as in The Lives of Others.  But so much of it is dialogue that moves the plot very little and action that occurs maybe twice.  In this case when I speak of action I don't mean explosions or a car chase, but characters ending their long conversation and finally committing to a deed.  I literally ended up admiring the wallpaper in one exchange, which is not-coincidentally when I realized A Most Wanted Man just wasn't working.

So with A Most Wanted Man released it also means that I have one of the last opportunities to admire Hoffman.  He does tremendous work here, transporting the spirit of a gruff detective to the body of a broken German agent working from the shadows.  There is a distinct waver in his gravely authority that suggests a hidden trauma far better than the many times he is involved in an exchange that says "We know what happened the last time Gunther was in charge of a mission."  Gunther is a man desperately searching through his professional life for one last success, and Hoffman's wounded howls during his darkest moments serve as a depressing reminder of the great talent who's now gone.

His talents did not go to waste in A Most Wanted Man.  There are considerable strengths to the film, but Corbijn is still a director too interested in creating the perfect shot without figuring out how to weave it into the story.  I must settle on quiet respect, if not much love - a position that Gunther would most certainly appreciate.

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Tail - A Most Wanted ManA Most Wanted Man (2014)

Directed by Anton Corbijn.
Screenplay written by Andrew Bovell.
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, and Willem Dafoe.

Posted by Andrew

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