This is a re-post of our The Last Thing He Wanted review from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The film is now streaming on Netflix.
In the ten years I’ve been coming to the Sundance Film Festival, Dee Rees‘ adaptation of Joan Didion‘s novel The Last Thing He Wanted is easily one of the biggest disappointments I’ve encountered. I enjoyed Rees’ breakthrough film Pariah and adored her 2017 movie Mudbound, but The Last Thing He Wanted feels like the work of a completely different filmmaker—one who has no idea what she’s doing. A picture that’s intended as a cross between a journalism thriller and a family drama ends up as an impenetrable slog of nonsensical plot points and thin character motivations. The film is a failure on every level with a horribly miscast Anne Hathaway in the lead role, an exploitative narrative that doesn’t know where its priorities are, and a complete inability to even establish the basic stakes of the story. The only thing that captivated my interest in The Last Thing He Wanted is wondering how this movie went so horribly wrong.
Elena McMahon (Hathaway) is a hard-boiled journalist working in El Salvador with her photographer (Rosie Perez) chronicling the horrible war crimes that might be connected to America’s influence. However, she must flee and two years later is still itching to get back on the story of how American guns are ending up in the hands of the Contras. Her editor sticks her on the 1984 campaign trail, which she hates, but hopes to use it to perhaps uncover more information about what the government is up to. But then her plans are disrupted when her estranged father Richard (Willem Dafoe) comes out of the woodwork. He’s suffering from the onset of dementia, but is still able to tell her that (surprise!) he’s a gunrunner, and he’s got a job lined up running guns to the Contras. Eager to get to the bottom of the story, Elena decides to do the gun-running job for her dad, but (again, surprise), it turns out she’s in way over her head. Also, Ben Affleck plays Treat Morrison, a shadowy government guy who pops up at random moments.
The Last Thing He Wanted plays like a movie with every other scene missing. Character motivations fade in and out, and while obviously the story needs some level of mystery if the protagonist’s job is to uncover the truth, there’s absolutely no way to figure out what’s happening in this film. Important figures are mentioned in passing and then won’t come up again for over an hour. A vital flashback is presented as if we’ve seen it before when in fact we’ve never seen it until it has to fill in a gap in Elena’s past. But where you really feel the lack of cohesion is in the relationship between Elena and Treat. The film starts out with Elena apparently passionate about her story because real people are suffering and she seems to be a reporter that does her homework. And yet when Treat comes along, she suddenly becomes dewy-eyed, confesses her innermost emotions within hours of meeting him, and they sleep together even though he’s clearly involved in orchestrating the atrocities she’s supposedly looking to expose.
For what’s supposed to be a journalism thriller, The Last Thing He Wanted seems to have a pretty strong disdain for the work of journalists, or at least journalists represented by Elena. The most admirable aspect of the character is how she wants to focus on hard news, but that drive is undermined by the total lack of fleshed-out Central American characters. Elena supposedly cares about the plight of the Central Americans, but they’re either depicted as victims or sociopaths. With no connection to actual people, Elena just becomes a journalist who wants the story to get to the story, but The Last Thing He Wanted seems completely indifferent to why that story matters. It’s as if someone heard in passing that the Iran-Contra scandal was important, involved arms deals, and left it at that.
It’s also difficult to buy the film as a journalism thriller when Hathaway feels completely wrong for this character. Hathaway knows how to play damaged characters to great effect like her turns in Rachel Getting Married and Les Miserables, but Elena, while carrying a lot of baggage, prides herself on how her pain made her stronger (she has a whole awkward monologue about her past because that’s how people in this movie do exposition—a long monologue like they’re reading their resume). But the kind of world-weary, hard-earned cynicism doesn’t work for Hathaway. No matter how much the makeup artists work to make Elena look tired, you never buy the 37-year-old Hathaway as some grizzled reporter. Hathaway’s solution is to make Elena sound like she’s smoked 12 packs of cigarettes a day and hasn’t slept in three weeks, but those are shortcuts to an experience the performance and the story doesn’t earn.
The Last Thing He Wanted is kind of remarkable in how it doesn’t work on any single level. As a journalism thriller, the story makes no sense and character motivations and allegiances play as random and haphazard. As a story about the difficult relationship between a father and daughter, the plotline completely fizzles out with Dafoe’s character disappears from the narrative and the film finds a comically awful way to explain what happened to him. As a story about American imperialism during the Reagan Era, the details come off like someone half-remembering a Wikipedia page on Iran-Contra. Maybe there’s a longer version of this movie that works by putting back in all the connective tissue that appears to have been removed, but the version we got is one that people will watch on Netflix for maybe 20 minutes before they get bored and switch to something else. Netflix will still count it as a full viewing.