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Much-loved character actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sudden death due to a heroin overdose back in February this year was a shock, one of those things that no one saw coming. But look hard at his final performance in “A Most Wanted Man” and behind the role you can see it in his eyes — that funk, that despair, that whatever-it-was that drove him back off the wagon and onto the needle. It’s a desperate performance in a mostly well-mannered film.

“A Most Wanted Man” is based on a novel by John le Carre in which the author updated his trademark Cold War espionage tropes to the war on terror. It’s a sleek, cerebral spy story, art-directed to death by Anton Corbijn, who is settling into slow-burn thrillers after the post-punk intensity of his Ian Curtis/Joy Division biopic “Control.” (And cinematographer Benoit Delhomme turns in some of his best work since the films he shot in the 1990s such as “Cyclo” and “The Scent of Green Papaya.”)

Hoffman plays a shambling but driven German intelligence agent, Gunther Bachmann, in charge of an off-the-books anti-terror squad in Hamburg, the city that harbored Mohamed Atta and many of the 9/11 plotters. He’s on the trail of a suspected Chechen radical, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who has snuck into Germany and is seeking assistance from human-rights attorney Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams). Is Issa a legitimate asylum-seeker or a potential suicide bomber? Tension rises between Bachmann, who wishes to follow his prey deeper to trace the links, and his unsubtle rivals in German intelligence and the CIA, who’d prefer a quick takedown. Nobody’s motives are entirely clear, and the film focuses on matters of trust and betrayal more than gunplay and chases.

A Most Wanted Man (Dare Yori mo Nerawareta Otoko)
Rating
Director Anton Corbijn
Run Time 122 minutes
Language English
Opens Now showing

With a German accent seemingly borrowed from Bruno Ganz, Hoffman’s performance here is neither his best nor his worst, but it showcases his ability to do something sharp and edgy with almost any role. Guzzling hard liquor from morning till night and with seemingly no interests in life other than his work, Hoffman’s spy is a figure haunted by past mistakes, specifically when he lost colleagues during a failed operation in Beirut.

As he has dinner with a cagey CIA agent (played by Robin Wright) and they discuss what happened in Beirut, we get one of two points in the film where Hoffman opens up. Looking straight at the camera, with a truly haunted gaze, he talks of “all that damage . . . we leave behind.” Then, with the certainty of someone who has lived the line, Hoffman turns to her and murmurs, “You ever ask yourself why we do what we do?” It’s impossible to watch this scene — and the many shots of Bachmann guzzling his whiskey — and not feel a twinge of the existential despair seeping out of the role. Unlike many actors, Hoffman never lost his edge in comfortable middle age: Instead he teetered on it until he eventually took that final swan dive.

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