Synopsis – A veteran D.C. journalist loses the thread of her own narrative when a guilt-propelled errand for her father thrusts her from byline to unwitting subject in the very story she’s trying to break. Adapted from Joan Didion’s namesake novel.
My Take – Maybe it is due to the change in audience’s perception regarding world news, but we just don’t get enough good political thrillers anymore. While we do get a release or two every year, most seem to fly under the radar or simply get vanquished at the box office upon release. Unless of course they are headlined by starry names or helmed by prolific filmmakers, for example, George Clooney’s The Ides of March, Bridge of Spies and The Post (both lead by Tom Hanks & directed by Steven Spielberg).
Hence, from the second it was announced that screenwriter and director Dee Rees, would be adapting Joan Didion’s acclaimed 1996 novel, with an A-list cast attached, it sounded like just the film that could give a major boost to the genre.
Adding to the fact that Netflix, who have been on a dream run with films like Marriage Story, The Irishman, Roma among others, would be distributing the film, marking a re-collaboration, following her excellent Mudbound (2017), which was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress, the project sounded like a sure shot winner.
Sadly, this half-baked political thriller turned out to be an incoherent, ridiculous exercise in boredom and in a certain way, an annoying experience. The script, co-written by Rees and Marco Villalobos, is just incomprehensible, with very little in the way of character development and very little history given to contextualize why anything happening is important. It feels like large chunks of the story are simply missing, as though someone went in and deleted all the connective scenes that would make it make sense.
The film just falls flat in virtually every way possible, but particularly in the way it tells its complex story that ultimately leads nowhere with an unsatisfying conclusion. Making this an adaption, a messy, disorientating and meandering film, certainly the last thing we wanted or expected.
Taking place in the 80s, the story follows Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway), a hard-bitten journalist with The Atlantic Post, who despite covering the horrors out of Nicaragua with Alma (Rosie Perez), is yanked out of the story and is instead assigned to cover the Ronald Reagan re-election campaign.
However, when her ill father Dick McMahon (Willem Dafoe), an arms dealer, turns to her to help him finish his one last job, she inadvertently becomes embroiled in the very story she had once tried to crack, involving US government-backed arms dealing in Central America. Elena’s presence in the deal also brings her to the attention of Treat Morrison (Ben Affleck), a high-ranking U.S. government official who soon begins investigating McMahon’s reasons for being in Costa Rica, all while she becomes entangled in one conspiracy after the other.
If the description seems vague or confusing, that’s because the film lacks any sense of reason or organized plot. Somehow the irony of this situation isn’t fully explored. Here we have a righteous journalist who just a few minutes before was declaring about how they can’t just look away from the Central American atrocities is now smuggling in the exact weapons fueling the violence!
Without a doubt, the film is an incoherent mess of the highest order, there is quite simply too much plot for director Rees to handle this film in a graceful fashion. Throughout the course of the film, we jump between different time periods rather rapidly. The opening sequence alone jumps between different days and we are never really given any time to breathe and follow the story in an easy and coherent way. As a whole though the film’s biggest issue is that despite being labeled as a thriller it’s not at all thrilling.
Despite running for 115 minutes, there is never a time in the screenplay where anything all that exciting happens. There are a couple of scenes that feel like they could be going in a great direction, but they ultimately fizzle out being bland and uninspired like the rest of the film.
The ludicrous plot turn is just one of the script’s numerous problems. The narrative is nigh-on impossible to follow and mostly consists of Elena ricocheting between locations for no adequately explained reason. Why she ends up tending the house of Toby Jones’s louche expat, for example, is anybody’s guess.
Annoyingly, to understand what is happening in the film, we need to do some homework beforehand and get familiar with Nicaragua in the 1980s, with knowing about the Sandinistas and Contras being the most crucial part. Instead of explaining about them, we instead get long sequences filled with expository dialogue that feels like the two wrote it thinking it was smarter than it actually was.
Director Dee Rees simply has too much chatter here, and not enough of handle on any kind of an actual central story, choosing to ill-advisedly adapt the source work in long form when some very judicious editing could have removed the plentiful extraneous baggage and perhaps massaged this into something approximating a watchable product. Instead, the film plays out as a painfully extended prologue which struggles to get even get started, involving shady but dull characters and a protagonist whose motivations and actions, at least in the moment, are elusive at best.
The performances too are not up to the mark, Anne Hathaway, despite her hardest effort, doesn’t really convince out to be a gritty journalist who is often behind enemy lines, and is forced to either frequently run away inexplicably or motor mouth her way through some very dense dialogue, failing to hit the right note on both counts. While in supporting roles, Ben Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Rosie Perez, Toby Jones, and Edi Gathegi aren’t given enough to do to really stand out. On the whole, ‘The Last Thing He Wanted’ is a woefully incoherent thriller that lacks any entertainment value and is entirely devoid of thrills.
Directed – Dee Rees
Rated – R
Run Time – 115 minutes