A MOST WANTED MAN (2014)
reviewed by Audy Elliott
"You have a job to do. You’re going to help me do it."
– Gunther Bachmann (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe)
The above quote, in a nutshell, gives the viewer all he or she needs to know that Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character, Gunther Bachmann, a head of a German Counter Terrorist Government cell, will singularly exert his force, when necessary, upon any and all things that stand in his way to get the man he wants - a most wanted man. As we follow his lead, he suffocates any situation and person that come within his inscrutable range, and because of that, results come at unforeseen cost.
Understated, sober, methodical, cerebral, pushy, impetuous, perilous, straightforward
Excellent lead castings (Hoffman, Dafoe & Wright)
Another good adaptation to a Le’ Carre novel.
Miscasting of Rachel McAdams
Lack of energy for long parts of the movie
Lack of momentum at times
Plot ‘spins its wheels’ at times
WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT
A half-Chechen, half- Russian, (Grigory Dobrygin) brutally tortured immigrant turns up in Hamburg’s Islamic community. He is coming to claim his father’s mob money, with both German and US security agencies, led by Gunther Bachmann (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Assisted by American agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) they race to establish the man’s true identity between a broken man looking for asylum or an a Islamic radical with extremist ties to a larger terrorism network.
WHAT THE MOVIE IS REALLY ABOUT
The movie is based on John Le Carre’s 2008 novel with the same name. The novel is a critique of then U.S. President George W. Bush’s foreign policy treatment towards all alleged suspicious targets or persons of interest globally. It casts the United States as this Machiavellian seek and destroy behemoth war ship in which it will do anything to capture, persecute and abuse all resources and allies as Bush mandated capturing “the evil doers”. Also this movie is Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s last role prior to his ill-fated death earlier this year. Like ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ Le Carre’ gives a balanced narrative skeleton to the film adaption in that we are experiencing, voyeuristically, real and tangible insight to the prosaic world that spy cartels operate in.
Typically when it comes to spy thrillers the audiences are used to certain clichés – convoluted plot to man on the run narrative to trust no one self loathing capped off by clandestine action with ham-handed assuredness that the protagonist will eventually wade through the double agent bullshit, win big and get the game’s high score. To this movie’s credit it doesn’t go that route. What is most awarding about this movie is that ‘A Most Wanted Man’ is probably the most objective spy film that I have ever seen. It lays out a very balanced presentation of each character, their respective roles, and how it all comes together without blatantly patronizing the viewer to lean towards defined roles automatically associating with America the good guys, while the rest of the world – bad guys! Typically spy movies play on your inherent allegiances that you bring with you to a movie (such as any Vietnam war movie or a character that went rouge and is now the target); you are given a pre-determined protagonist to follow and from that point you travel with the character as they work out their trust issues while keep his or her head on a Jason Bourne like swivel. Thankfully this movie doesn’t do that. From the outset we are interested in our “Most Wanted Actor” Seymour Hoffman. He is an intelligent wrecking ball of a man that will get what he needs and how quickly he wants it. He is the king of the mountain in this movie as he works his subordinates tirelessly, manipulates his moles, and emotionally browbeats his captives while also playing footsies with American agent Martha Sullivan (Wright). The movie provides a whose who of notable actors such as Willem Dafoe as the international banker to Issa’s father’s money, and Rachel McAdams as the plucky yet naïve German Human Rights attorney fighting for Issa’s asylum. Of all the cast, McAdam’s was the hardest to swallow. She wasn’t convincing in her role as the aforementioned attorney. It’s hard to take McAdams seriously, no matter how hard she takes seriously herself or the role. She is suitable in parts where she can unleash her nasty side as long as it fits within the character, that looks like her if she was playing derivation of a Rachel McAdams like character. That's not to say she has to play herself like Jennifer Aniston, but roles where you expect her playing someone that is a version of herself, such as Regina George in 'Mean Girls' or Owen Wilson’s fiancé in 'Midnight in Paris.' It’s not a stretch for her to relate to those particular roles. This is not to say McAdams doesn’t have substance because she clearly does, but as an attorney that needs to fight for her client? Never do we get the feeling that Issa is in protective hands with her, especially with the Lion of the spy jungle Bachmann on the prowl. Regardless of this, Willem Dafoe was truly the most rewarding actor in the movie. As stated before he plays an everyman type international banker that is in trust of Issa’s father’s money. Dafoe normally plays characters where danger is always lurking behind his unique face but his approach towards others is brimming with a seething gentility, but misleadingly as he can only do us a favor by holding it back. In this movie, Dafoe still carried those same natural traits but it was the subservience that his character demonstrated at almost a willful yet unnerving accommodation towards Bachmann that I have never seen from the actor before. For the better part of the movie he is an order taker that neither wants to give in to Bachmann but at the same time doesn’t want to let him down either.
This is the first scene where you get a glimpse as to what kind of people Bachmann and Richter are, and how they are complete opposites politically, professionally and emotionally. Richter is trying to give Bachmann Issa’s intent and motivations, and Bachmann is trying to convince Richter otherwise. None of the characters in the movie know what the true case is with anyone, but are driven completely on trust towards Issa (Richter) but also mistrust against Issa (Bachmann). This is the first scene in the movie’s plot that we the audience, having the full picture, know exactly where each person stands. This makes our view from the vantage point that no one is classically good or bad, just objectively doing what they feel is right.
'A Most Wanted' is, at the end of the day, fool’s gold. It’s acted credibly, filmed studiously and crafted technically accurate and because of that a viewer may say “I’m not moved by this movie emotionally but because everything seems real, therefore this is a good movie” and that is not correct. Yes, this movie provides a good causeway to marrying the book’s ether and merging it to celluloid with an important pay off at the end. I found myself however more times than not being disinterested of the whole contrived Richter and Issa co-dependency passive aggressive relationship. Furthermore there is nothing notable about this movie aside from the fact that this was Seymour Hoffman’s last role. Granted Le Carre’s books are good source materials but this movie doesn’t have an academy award winning highlight like Gary Oldman’s transfixed performance in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ or its atmospheric cold war moodiness. What’s ultimately missing in this movie, when it comes to this genre, is masterful intrigue. Unfortunately, there is not a whiff of that in this film to complement the workman like stoic direction, screenplay, style and tone thus giving a feel of another boring day at the spy office.
2.5 out of 4
reviewed by Audy Elliott
“You know how you can tell when you’re really getting old?
No one ever says the word death around you any more”
– The Writer to Father James
An elderly writer played by the honorable M. Emmet Walsh says the fantastic above quote to Father James (Brendan Gleeson) as he is casually turning in to bed for the night. The line was met with an uproarious collective laugh in the theater, as it was funny, but also haunting. Father James, who is middle aged, has death looming over himself for the theme of death is foreboding and unforgiving in this movie. Father James, again, is not old but the weight of the guilt he takes on from the sins of his parishioners is and thus death is not verbal but symbolic in a gnawing ancillary manner.
Grim, weighty, unpretentious, somber, warm, heavy, wryly humorous
Smart Aleck tone
Iconographic frames and scenes
Dominating lead performance from Gleeson
Mostly indecipherable dialog
Forced anti-political correct humor
WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT
Father James (Brenden Gleeson of Harry Potter, The Guard & In Bruges) is a good man and priest who is faced with sinister and troubling circumstances brought to him by way of a death threat from a mysterious parishioner during confession. With just one week to live, Father James seeks to comfort his emotionally fragile adult daughter (Kelly Reilly of Sherlock Holmes Game of Shadows) while also reaching out to help members of his church with their various religious moral and ethical issues in addition to reflecting on his very own existence.
WHAT THE MOVIE IS REALLY ABOUT
This movie directed by John Michael McDonagh (The Guard), was created when the director wanted to make a film where instead of creating a study of the typical priest abusing young boys and the fallout from the aftermath of such, he would do one about a good honest priest. This film is constructed as one part art-house “who dunnit” with the foreboding mystery of the death threat, and one part framed narrative character driven drama where all the villagers are not only suspects but key members in forming Father James story arc as he contemplates the world that surrounds him. Each scene and town member he encounters adds a thread of dimension to the richness of his story and theology behind what religious bureaucracy Father James is associated with and how, under exigent circumstances, he chooses to deal with it.
This movie begins and ends with Gleeson’s performance. As Father James he demonstrates that “Father”is multifaceted when it comes to his relationship to the different townspeople he encounters. Wearing a long dark ominous robe, McDonagh demonstrates a wonderful contrast with placement in each scene showcasing Gleeson as the subject of his compositions. There is a certain non movement of the robe when Gleeson maneuvers profoundly through town. The robe takes on a life of its own with its religious symbolic garb but also as if Gleeson himself is a manifested walking angel of death. Watching this I got certain cinema denotations to Ingmar Bergman’s the ‘Seventh Seal’. In the Bergman’s classic, the thematic imagery created a tension where the traveler and the personification of death play a game of chess on a beach. Death is dressed in dramatic contrast with a milky white oval shaped face, but draped in a long black formless gown. Nothing more, nothing less. To me there is a calming beauty a beach provides gifting us transformation within its oceanic waters and with ‘Calvary’ McDonagh, in my opinion, achieves the same tension. Father James walks along the beach several times shining beautifully in cinematography with his black cape slicing through the crystal blue water and dirty white sanded beach. If one were to see Father James, one could mistakenly feel he was the placeholder of death by encompassing him, then enabling him, and eventually shrouding him. The true emotional touch and catharsis comes in the form of Father James daughter Fiona. Fiona comes to the town to spend time with him after a failed suicide attempt, and like her father she is also going through issues seeking paternal guidance. The preexisting affection between the two characters is there without the familiarity of it being there. It’s truly the only time when Father James can keep his guard down. Humor is more subtle here in this movie compared to McDonagh’s ‘The Guard’ but nevertheless its saves the movie from drowning in its own self pity. The movie’s screenplay and presentation is so immersive with its unique idiosyncratic people that at times you get lost in the “meaning of it all” opposed to who the actual presumptive killer could be. Like Father James, I took for granted that he is on deathwatch since it was handled in a way that the inevitability of it (Amityville weekday countdown was presented) was secondary compared to the more interesting facet of fleshing out the characters and the interchangeable parables each one espouses onto Father James. Even as some of the jokes and punches come from racial humor and being politically incorrect, it wasn’t a complete eye roll from me. Like ‘In Bruges’, which was directed by McDonagh’s brother Martin McDonagh, the acidic commentary and bigotry was a bit obligatory. Whereas, in ‘In Bruges’ it fit like a glove because of the absurdist tone and delivery of the movie forces Colin Ferrell and the supporting characters to rely on it, ‘Calvary’ is bleaker in mood and thereby not as seamlessly successful with its usage of humor as ‘In Bruges’ was. Further, ‘In Bruges’ uses its humor as a commentary on a stranger in a strange land with strange people, almost as a crutch whereas the humor in ‘Calvary’ is used to assuage some of the darker bleaker tones it produces.
Father James is in the room with town Inspector Stanton, and with this scene Father James comes to speak with the good old Inspector in the ways of sexual deviancy. However, as the scene unfolds it is apparent that Father James possibly came to get a gun to protect himself but it’s done in a implicit way. Never once in the scene is Father James confessing to the Inspector on the exact intended use, but McDonagh wants the viewer to make that visual connection. And with that it goes against everything Father James stands for while also accentuating his developing complexity. In an earlier scene Father James is talking down a young misguided man from enlisting in war as it forsakes the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”. The gun offers no sanctuary or protection to either Father James or us the audience as it is emblematic of the possibly hypocrisy the good ol’ Father could bring upon himself.
‘Calvary’ is a fairly good arthouse ‘whodunnit” film that doesn’t sell itself as a murder mystery but is mysterious in its own chasten way. With fine small performances, breathtaking cinematography, and beautiful Irish country landscapes surrounding Gleeson’s memorable performance, this movie offers a lot. There were times that scenes and direction were charged with the same gothic swath and depression that of Paul T. Anderson’s ‘There will be blood’. McDonagh likes to keep his movies in isolated situations, and studies them with microscopic sensitivity, and Gleeson never once lets up his burden, carrying the same smart-ass workman like ambivalence and warmth demonstrated in his other roles. There aren’t any pretentions with this movie nor does it cater towards commenting against the historical transgressions of the Catholic Church. The movie’s only concern is to study the irony that a good man could be punished for the actions of his brethren and how he handles it without completely denouncing it.
3 out of 4