FOR A MOVIE about global terrorism, A Most Wanted Man might seem surprisingly character driven—but fans of John le Carré, whose novel the film is based upon, know to expect as much. Le Carré's built a career on spy thrillers that mine tension as much from the intricacies of human relationships as from the threat of bombs going off.

In one of his final performances, Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as acerbic, heavy-drinking Günther Bachmann, a German counterterror operative charged with infiltrating the Islamic community in Hamburg. I'm glad we got to see Hoffman tackle a Le Carré project before he died: Hoffman seems perfectly at home in this shadowy world of moral ambiguity and high-stakes decision making, where trust is currency and good intentions count for exactly nothing.

Annabel (Rachel McAdams) is a young human rights lawyer representing an exiled Chechen terror suspect, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who's come to Germany in pursuit of a large inheritance left by his father. Günther, meanwhile, is interested in using Issa's money to catch bigger fish. Every interaction is a tradeoff, a small calculation of risk and benefit, and the audience is as in the dark as anyone over who can be trusted and who can't. A Most Wanted Man is a tense, absorbing thriller on its own terms—but it's also a heartbreaking reminder of just how good Hoffman could be.