“Most Wanted,” starring Josh Hartnett as Canadian investigative journalist Victor Malarek, takes us back to 1989, when a young heroin addict, Daniel Léger (Antoine Olivier Pilon), is set up as a major drug trafficker by government officials and lands in a Thai prison. Based on a true story, it’s a riveting and complicated story of betrayal and injustice and the importance of integrity to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.
Daniel is a recovering addict who desperately attempts to find a new path in life, but with no support system, he easily falls back into the comfort of his old ways. With no money and no prospects, he reconnects with a friend on a party boat in British Columbia run by low-life drug dealer, Picker (Jim Gaffigan). Before you read any further, Gaffigan seems a strange fellow to cast in this role, but he more than adequately fits the bill, a despicable character who is immediately unlikeable, and never do you expect him to be funny.
Daniel’s friend bails on him, leaving him penniless and homeless, but Picker comes to his rescue. Unfortunately, Picker takes advantage of Daniel’s trust and becomes inadvertently indebted to this man who also is working as a snitch for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. This debt will be Daniel’s demise.
As the story unfolds on the western coast of Canada, Malarek’s story unfolds on the eastern side in Toronto. Malarek, a young, motivated and spotlight-seeking investigative journalist in both print and television is trying to make a name for himself. Digging deeply into a story about an unfortunate death of an officer during a drug bust in Canada, he attempts to uncover the truth beneath the obvious falsehoods. This does nothing but lands him without a job and in marital conflict. He will not give up on what he knows is the truth, however, and his small article opens the doors to another independent investigation.
“Most Wanted” uses a creative timeline storytelling technique to give the viewer all the independent and pertinent details needed about Léger, Picker, the police force and Malarek’s life in the first third of the film. The timelines then mesh and the stories combine to give us an incredible and almost inconceivable one. The pieces of the puzzle neatly come together to give us a clear picture of what happened: the wrongful imprisonment of an innocent man.
The layers of this story are as complicated as those from a similar film from 2019, “The Report,” as writer Daniel Roby details all of the characters’ relevant actions, motivations and interactions. He also weaves into the story the time period’s politics regarding the war on drugs in both Canada and the U.S. The seemingly myriad number of characters, all important to the final outcome, are fleshed out to the point needed to drive the premise forward making it clear as a bell what happened to Daniel Léger in 1989.
Roby also is responsible for skillfully directing this intricate and articulate film. Hartnett masterfully portrays Malarek as more than a go-getter, and he isn’t the fairy tale version of our knight in shining armor. He’s flawed. He’s selfish and allows his own goals to put his family in harm’s way. He can’t see the forest for the trees when it comes to making decisions to protect others. And it is Hartnett’s deft ability to create a realistic man that makes this a more credible story. In fact, none of the characters is pure and perfect. Léger, while he is the victim in all of this, is no innocent young man either, and Pilon is immediately believable as the character. He’s an antsy, unsure and distrustingly lonely young man whose future is comprised of not the years ahead, but the hours ahead. It’s survival and escape, and we see it in his eyes as he finds himself in constantly dire situations. Then, there are the undercover officers who appear to have no moral compass whatsoever who make only self-serving decisions. Much to my delighted surprise, Gaffigan stands out with his fine performance as Picker, an absolute drain on society who, without a second thought, sacrifices anyone in order to save himself. All of these characters accompanied by the cinematography give the film the gritty nature that suits it perfectly.
“Most Wanted” is a brilliantly multilayered story in a subtly stylized 1989 setting, which doesn’t miss a single thread in stitching it together. It’s a compelling, complex and captivating mystery thriller that makes use of all of the two-plus hour runtime that will be at the top of my 2020 film list.
Reel Talk rating: 4/4 Stars