For reasons owing mostly to a capricious, unfair universe, A Most Wanted Man will probably always be first remembered as the movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman's last starring role. That's a cruel fate for any film to have to live up to, but at least in this case it's helped out by Hoffman being absurdly good: fighting against a German accent and a screenplay adapted by Andrew Bovell from John Le Carré's 2008 novel that goes out of its way to prevent us from getting a clear bead on what the character is thinking, he still manages to create one of the best characters of his whole career. Weary and slumped, disappearing into his baggy clothes and sickly comb-over, Hoffman's Günther Bachmann is indelible, a man who has largely given up but still badly wants to find something worth being invested in. He fits perfectly into Le Carré's world of miserably self-aware spies driven by inertia and focused depression, and watching him labor through the nest of bureaucratic confusions making up the film's plots is a marvelous chance to explore a weathered but unbroken psyche set against a bleak, joyless representation of the city of Hamburg.

But Hoffman, however great, is not the only thing that A Most Wanted Man has on its mind, and maybe not even the most important. Though considerably less angry than the source novel, this is still a heavily political story that presents Bachmann as just one victim of a crude system of imperial arrogance masquerading as the intelligence community. Herein, a Chechen Muslim who has been imprisoned by both the Russians and the Turks, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) has illegally found his way into Hamburg, a city that an opening title card informs us has been on heightened alert ever since one of the 9/11 planners made it his home base before the attack. The super-secret, super-illegal office of German intelligence that Bachmann works for finds him, and is obliged to take for granted the sketchy Russian suggestions that he's a fanatical terrorist. Karpov, who looks more like the sort of fellow who has been abused into psychological oblivion by prison torture than a fanatical anything, makes contact with Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a lawyer with a charity firm working to help illegal immigrants stabilise their political status; he wishes to make contact with Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), the head of a fading bank where Karpov's dead father, a Chechen-raping Russian general, apparently left a lot of money. Bachmann and his team hope to make Karpov a contact that will get them deeper into Hamburg's radical Islamic communities, making Richter and Brue their pawns; but the more rightwing elements in German intelligence want to roll over for the Americans, in the form of CIA contact Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), who want to whisk Karpov away to Gitmo or some other agonising place, where his value as both a human being and an intelligence resource will be subsumed to his value as one more prisoner to make the United States feel awesomely self-righteous about the War on Terror.

Bachmann and Richter, the characters who have the most well-defined character arcs (Karpov is left a cipher, a deliberate strategy to show how even the most well-meaning Westerners adopt an objectifying, utilitarian approach to the rest of the world, I think), aren't the film's focus, but merely two more victims of a system that grinds along of its own hideous inertia, ruining everything. It's very much a film about processes: the appeal of the film, though "appeal" is a debatable word, lies in watching the extreme effort and labor it takes to set up these byzantine systems, piece by piece. The impact lies in watching how quickly they can explode, and how that explosion takes an entirely human toll - without giving away the film's ending, which is nearly identical to the book's, just from a different perspective, I can at least say that it does an unexpectedly magnificent job of ripping the rug out from under the film and allowing the characters a chance to have a personal reckoning.

A Most Wanted Man is the third feature directed by Anton Corbijn, whose last film, The American, is in some ways its exact opposite: warm, colorful, and sensual where this is chilly, desaturated, and mechanical. But both films are ultimately about human actors being trampled by the systems they're responsible for driving. Corbijn, a music video director before he moved into movies, has a knack for austere style that works terrifically well for this kind of story: his surface-first approach to constructing visuals emphatically defines and constrains the characters, positing them as the result of a decaying world. Corbijn, along with cinematographer Benoît Delhomme and production designer Sebastian T. Krawinkel, crafts a Hamburg of blues and greys and yellows that feels unlivable and inhuman, halfway between a corpse and a steel cage, and it provides the film with its moral grounding just as fully as the stuffy brown offices of the last Le Carré adaptation, Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, dictated the themes and mindset of that world. The unifying factor is that both stories present spying as something like a social disease, and the full design of the world in both cases is key to establishing what kind of society we're talking about.

Through all this, and through the exertions of a uniformly strong cast who focus on creating plausible figures to inhabit the story rather than pulling focus towards themselves (McAdams's accent sometimes slips, and I do deeply wish the film had given the wonderful Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi anything meaningful to do), A Most Wanted Man hits hard, and it hits relentlessly. It's a thriller that's too exhausted to be thrilling, at times, and its presentation of what amounts to a post-human world makes it hard on its characters to express their humanity, and these are both reasons that I could see someone finding it a joy-starved trudge. But the immensely slow-building tension of the piece grows irresistibly suffocating, and the precision of the writing, the directing, and the acting combine to create a hugely realistic, functional world for that tension to do its best work. It's a bleak film about nasty things happening to helpless people, but just exciting enough in the story it tells through that for it to come off as compelling and not simply nihilistic. Not the most complex or subtle of spy films, but it's still an exemplary success in its genre.