Philip Seymour Hoffman is an island of rumpled calm in Anton Corbijn's urgent A Most Wanted Man, a glum-out-of-principle espionage story based on a John Le Carré novel. The role demands that Hoffman be quiet, steady, occasionally frustrated, and that he hold secrets. This is the last film that Hoffman completed, and other than a few humane flourishes -- a bleat of anger, a playful wave to a video monitor showing a prisoner flipping him off -- he's a poker-faced riddle. It's our job to wonder whether he's a hero, a monster, or that pie slice of Venn diagram, where those possibilities overlap.
Hoffman's whiskery, unknowable Günther Bachmann is the leader of an encouragingly humane street-level counterterrorism squad in a stylishly miserable Hamburg. He seems a miserable schlump, with no home life to speak of, with only his work to throw himself into, with his soul ground down between conflicting forces beyond his control. The case that wears him down starts small. Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a young Muslim man from Chechnya, enters Hamburg illegally with no identification except a letter entitling him to millions from an international bank. Bachmann wants to trail Karpov -- might he use the money to fund terrorism? An immigration lawyer played by Rachel McAdams takes up Karpov's case, and a banker played by Willem Dafoe faces pressure from Bachmann to wear a wire and string Karpov along.
Hoffman's scenes with Dafoe are wonderfully tense -- here are two actors known for holding things in and then exploding, playing powerful men manipulating one another. Who will blow first? This is a complex tale superbly told.