Anne Hathaway plays a reporter stuck in an arms deal gone wrong in Dee Rees’ all-star casted adaptation of the 1996 Joan Didion novel that checks all the bad boxes.
Writer-director Dee Rees’ career has been stellar thus far. From her Academy-Award nominated adaptation of period drama Mudbound (also a Netflix film) to her Emmy-Winning HBO TV Movie Bessie and her debut autobiographical film Pariah (2011), her career has definitely been a fascinating journey through Hollywood’s independent and streaming film scene. With every film, she expands her artistic horizons and range and with her most recent offering, she explores the fast-paced, political thriller genre with her 80’s set adaptation of a beloved Joan Didion novel. The unfortunate reality though is that the filmmaker’s panache only goes so far here, failing to translate her uncomplicated script into something well-paced and coherent enough to watch.
Adapted by Rees and Marco Villalobos from the novel of the same name, this adaptation feels very exhausting and tensionless that it honestly feels incomprehensible most of the time. It’s a massively scaled effort for a film considered “independent” (Netflix bought the distribution rights to the film in May 2018), shooting in locations all around the world – Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Los Angeles and Miami – against the backdrop of the Iran-Contra affair. But that’s a big issue, clocking in at nearly two hours, the film bursts at the seams due to the gigantic canvas of so many global machinations involved. Add in a frantic camera and staccato editing, any viewer would easily be disappointed and frustrated with the film, even with a top-tier ensemble driving the film.
Our protagonist is Anne Hathaway’s Elena McMahon, a seasoned and mature idealistic D.C. journalist, and we meet her just as she witnesses a massacre in El Salvador that potentially ties everything back to the United States. Once the newspaper she works for decides to stop her investigation and assign her to cover the 1984 presidential election, the reporter embarks on a journey to connect all the dots alongside her newspaper colleague and long-time friend Alma (a very committed Rosie Perez). Add into the mix Elena’s hard-drinking and haughtily-mannered father Richard (played by an impeccable Willem Dafoe with his signature devilishness – how has the man not won an Oscar yet?). Elena deeply resents her father, who left the family years ago and entered into some shady business dealings. Following the death of her mother, Elena can’t help but feel a sense of pity and duty to her father, especially as his health deteriorates due to dementia. Guided by all her guilt, she agrees to see one of Richard’s uncompleted deals through to the end – a highly illegal and high-stakes transaction pitched in the midst of the Iran-Contra weapons affair that she was first following in the beginning of the film in El Salvador.
If the film wasn’t jumpy and confusing enough, the plot takes even more irreversibly obscure turns by this point. If thugs, political figures, crooked people and Elena’s daughter (stuck in a boarding school) are not all competing for your attention, nonstop motor-mouth dialogue bombard the audience from all directions. It is NEVER a good sign when a film has multiple clumsy sequences and a character has to pause and recall former scenes via voiceover form; it’s almost like Rees knew that the audience would be very lost and confused and needed to bring back the most important moments or scenes to remind and package the most important moments that happened. To add to the chaos, more subplots emerge that are convoluted and additions of a resort owner played by Toby Jones and the expressionless, one-note Treat Morrison, played by Ben Affleck, come into the mix. Both characters and subplots feel extremely out of place, further confusing the audience of what the film is really all about. Is it a political thriller? A heist film? Some sort of romantic drama against the backdrop of politics?
If you were to sit back and peel away all the excess (and there is a LOT of it) – one might be able to have a better understanding of Dee Rees’ narrative goals. It seems to tell a father-daughter story that is fueled by regret and mortality. Yet the human dimension that gives the film small and brief jolts of well-needed energy never really takes hold. Instead, audiences are left to grapple with a very stuffy film, although presented with high production values and an emerging filmmaker’s intriguing visual touch. I recommend watching the film for auteurs and filmgoers who adore Dee Rees’ films, not to mock the attempt, but for us to look forward to her next cinematic adventure, and hoping that the stumbles of this film will at least serve as good practice in her growth as an artist and someone with a lot to say.
“The Last Thing He Wanted” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres Category. At press time, the film was released in a limited theatrical run on February 14, 2020 and was made available for streaming on Netflix on February 21, 2020.
Director: Dee Rees.
Screenwriter: Dee Rees & Marco Villalobos..
Based on: The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion.
Music by: Tamar-kali.
Cinematography: Bobby Bukowski.
Production: Elevated Films, Little Red Hen, The Fyzz Facility.
Distributed by: Netflix.
With: Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, Rosie Perez, Edi Gathegi, Mel Rodriguez, Toby Jones, Willem Dafoe.