It's impossible to separate the experience of watching "A Most Wanted Man" from the still raw sadness of Philip Seymour Hoffman's passing in February.
The knowledge that this refined, exceedingly intelligent adaptation of the John le Carré novel would turn out to be Hoffman's last starring role (he'll still be seen in the final "Hunger Games" installments) invests his meticulous performance as German spy chief Günther Bachmann with a degree of poignancy that keeps you immersed in the movie even when director Anton Corbijn purposefully applies a cold, distancing aesthetic approach.
The picture follows Bachmann and his Munich-based team as they track a Chechen immigrant whom they believe will lead them to a bigger terror suspect.
It's a thriller that unfolds realistically, in moments of quiet surveillance, amid an atmosphere of encroaching, all-encompassing paranoia. Characters are dwarfed by drab bureaucratic settings, seen as specks set against governmental structures, swallowed whole by harsh rooms deluged by yellow light.
The filmmaker evokes classic urban suspense pictures by using the environment to shape and define the characters, to evoke feelings of loneliness and existential dread without relying on the crutch of action scenes or simplistic exposition. He gets at the complexity of these operations and the attendant moral ambiguity and crafts a film that reflects the relentless mindset necessary for Bachmann to do his work.
There's a superb supporting cast, including Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams. This is Hoffman's movie, though, and in the mix of palpable sadness and relentless determination that comprises Bachmann, the all-time great actor has given audiences one last parting gift: The chance to experience a performance unlike any he'd ever given, to see him again, anew.
Directed by Anton Corbijn | Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams | Rated R