Reviews: “A Most Wanted Man” and “Frank”

A Most Wanted Man

There were few actors who knew how to work an obscenity quite like Philip Seymour Hoffman. Whether he was going for pathos or fury, there was always something so desperately genuine about it when he swore. There was a line being crossed.

There’s a moment at the end of “A Most Wanted Man,” the last leading performance we’ll get from one of the greatest screen actors ever, where Hoffman gets to loose one more of his earth-shattering oaths. The scene is one of the neatest summaries of the work of John Le Carré yet put forward: a single, principled man, outflanked by an intangible, unfeeling system, exploding into a vacuum. Those with power can’t hear him, and those that can hear him are powerless. In Le Carré’s grimy world of spycraft and deception, it doesn’t do to invest in idealism.

Currency in this world is measured by information, and Hoffman’s Günther Bachmann seems a relatively rich man. As the head of an off-the-books German intelligence unit, tasked with combating terrorist operations in Hamburg (the unassuming urban locale where the 9/11 attacks were planned), Bachmann appears to have reached a level of relative success through a complex web of bait-and-switch contacts, allowing some low-level targets to roam free in order to get closer to the big fish. His tactics, however, draw the attention and ire of more blunt, results-oriented colleagues, including, perhaps, the CIA (represented here by a slippery Robin Wright, in fine “House of Cards” form).

So, when a young Chechen (Grigoriy Dobrygin) with potential ties to a radical Muslim cell arrives in Hamburg, Bachmann is given only a limited amount of time to execute his plan: first to find the man (spirited into hiding by a sympathetic pro bono immigration lawyer, played with Teutonic strain by Canadian Rachel McAdams), and then unwittingly turn him into a pawn against a charitable doctor fronting for funders of terrorism. As with many of Le Carré’s stories (“A Most Wanted Man” is adapted by Andrew Bovell from Le Carré’s 2008 novel of the same name), much of the fascination of this film lies in seeing how the sausage gets made: the intricacies of modern intelligence work, with hidden cameras, drop-offs and meetings in abandoned parking lots are carefully laid out, even as the dreadful sense of fatalism hanging over everyone’s heads suggests more than a little futility to the whole enterprise.

Much of that feeling comes from the queasy lighting and dank shadows of director Anton Corbijn’s visuals. The photographer-turned-filmmaker showed a precise command of style and tone in his first two features, the Ian Curtis biopic “Control” and the very Le-Carré-ish “The American,” and his penchant for unsettlingly perfect composition is a good match for the machinations of counter-terrorism. The hyper-competent cast (Willem Dafoe, Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl and Homayoun Ershadi also drop by) play their parts as glorified automatons in this clockwork affair, but only Hoffman really breaks through expected narrative beats, signifying a great nothing with sound and fury.

Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars

Frank

Charisma, quite like musical talent, can’t quite be explained. Logically, it makes no sense that Michael Fassbender should be spellbinding even with his entire face covered by a giant papier-mâché head, just as his character’s creative abilities defy much of the traditional motivations that lie behind most examinations of “great artists.” But, “Frank” suggests with black wit and unexpected tenderness, it’s not really for us to explain; inspiration strikes where and when it will, and chasing can be both the source and solace of madness.

Jon Burroughs (Domnhall Gleeson, son of Brendan, previously seen in a brief role opposite his father in “Calvary” and as an endearing Levin in Joe Wright’s up-and-down “Anna Karenina”) plays the Salieri to Frank’s Mozart in Lenny Abrahamson’s caustic comedy, an aspiring musician thrown by chance into the chaos of the off-kilter, experimental, unpronounceable rock band The Soronprfbs. Jon’s utter lack of talent is made clear in a hysterically funny opening sequence, and much of the film’s tension comes from his character’s gradual, grudging arrival at the same self-evaluation. Piggybacking off the obscure but undeniable ability of The Soronprfbs’ enigmatic leading man, Jon slowly morphs from remora to leech, pushing the band to take a big gig at Texas’ SXSW music festival.

What could be a traditional “band hits the big time” narrative is complicated by the emerging truth that Frank is not merely a charming, zany eccentric, but genuinely mentally ill. For much of the film, Jon seems unable to process this, folding Frank’s sickness into his mythology, just a piece of the boilerplate “trauma” from which all true creativity surely flows. That pits Jon against Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Frank’s aloof, stone-faced bandmate, who tries to protect Frank from the public scrutiny she knows will ultimately hurt him. It’s wonderful for art to be shared and embraced, but for the person with the talent, embracing themselves should be the first and foremost priority.

Abrahamson skirts some heavy topics, but with a fresh, funny touch and vigorous pace that keeps “Frank” from ever seeming to revel in its’ characters pain or selfishness. They just sit there, alongside the laughs and lunacy, part of the total package. The unique physical challenge of Frank makes Fassbender’s performance stand out, but Gyllenhaal and Gleeson are also excellent, sparking off each other in Frank’s shadow. It’s also worth mentioning Scoot McNairy as the band’s cagey manager, Don; it’s a curious little role that could have been a throwaway, but McNairy lends him a tragic weight as an eerie, resonant foil to Frank.

The music itself, meanwhile, is as it should be: alternately odd, transcendent, or some combination of the two. The film’s final track hits a sad but optimistic conclusion, leaving the impression that the best art isn’t trying to be intentionally likable, or deep, or unique; it’s just allowed to be what it is.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

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