The Last Thing He Wanted (Dee Rees, 2020) – Full Original – Political Thriller
Elena (Anne Hathaway) is a hard-driving reporter who in the film’s opening minutes barely escapes El Salvador with her life while covering the civil war in that country in the 1980s. While trying to continue her reporting about US clandestine operations in Central America a few years later, she is instead assigned to cover the 1984 presidential election. All that changes, however, when her father Dick (Willem Defoe) suddenly reappears in her life. Long absent as a father, Dick is now engaged in a secretive, high stakes business venture but is also suffering from myriad health problems including dementia. As his health deteriorates, he convinces Elena to take his place in the deal, landing her in Central America and on the run from various pursuers and hoping to find help from Treat (Ben Affleck), a mysterious agent from the US State Department.
With a creative team that includes auteur writer-director Dee Rees (of Mudbound fame, among her other celebrated works), novelist Joan Didion and an all-star cast featuring Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck and Willem Defoe, The Last Thing He Wanted should have been one of Netflix’s marquee films in the 2019 or 2020 awards seasons. Instead it will go down as one of the biggest disappointments in the company’s foray into fiction film-making to date. What should have been a tense thriller that shines a light on US imperialism in Central America and the Caribbean is instead a poorly written, poorly acted and catastrophically badly edited mess of a movie.
Besides some noble themes, there is nothing in this film that works so I will just concentrate on a couple of the problem areas here and you can assume that all the other aspects of the film are also deficient. The film’s script fails on several levels, including with its plotting and narration, which provide zero historical context or framing for the action. Similarly, they do little to nothing to develop tangible character relationships between Elena and her daughter or father. The net result of these two failings is that we struggle to understand what is going on personally or politically for Elena and we therefore also struggle to care about her on these levels.
Besides these problems, the script’s dialogue is beyond woeful. In this script, Rees and her co-writer Marco Villalobo somehow managed to assemble dialogue that is clichéd to the point of silliness, pretentiously literary in a way that feels like it was lifted directly from Didion’s novel and at points completely unintelligible. Some choice silliness for you includes actual lines of dialogue like: “if you want to catch a monkey, you have to follow the banana trail” and “I don’t have to be told what dead chickens mean! I know”. (The latter is spoken by a bafflingly superfluous character played by Toby Jones.)
While these clangers were at least amusing, the unintelligible dialogue was more annoying and distracting. During one key scene, I even had to put on the subtitles not because the sound was bad (though it was at times) but because the dialogue was so nonsensical that I had to make sure they were actually saying what I thought they were saying.
Beyond these problems – which I feel like I am actually underplaying, believe it or not – there is also some awful acting on display in the film. This ranges in style from the hamminess of Toby Jones, to the one-note righteous anger of Hathaway to a completely phoned-in bit of wooden robotics from Ben Affleck. Given her roles in bombs such as Serenity, The Hustle and this film, Hathaway at this point in her career seems to be at a bit of a low point, but at least she has been in some interesting things like Modern Love and Colossal recently. Affleck, on the other hand, really seems to be spiraling. After grunting his way through the DC films and the Netflix movie Triple Frontier and doing absolutely no acting in this film, you really have to wonder if his heart is in it anymore. And that’s not to mention some of his personal problems.
The problems with the editing are hard to disentangle from the script problems as in a final cut they seem like one and the same. But suffice it to say that the film jumps between characters, places and times with little to no explanation, leaving the audience bewildered. To put it charitably, you could say this confusion is intended to mirror Elena’s as she finds herself in way over her head and not knowing who to trust. But a more skillfully constructed film would have been able to convey this to the audience without leaving them as confused as the character is. Much of the blame for these problems has to fall on Dee Rees, but there is more hope for the future in her case than there is for the film’s stars. Everyone has failures, the Hollywood saying goes, but not everyone has successes. Rees has had enough success up to now to be hopeful about her next feature, which has already been announced and which will not be for Netflix.
After hyping the film considerably when they signed Rees, Netflix quite obviously cooled on the film as time went on. Initially discussed as an Oscar contender in 2019, the film was conspicuously absent from the fall festival season and the subsequent awards season. Fears would have seemed to have been muted, however, by the announcement that the film would play at Sundance 2020. But Sundance is not Venice, even if it is where Mudbound also premiered. The final red flag for me came when Netflix announced the film’s release date being in February of 2020. Unless the film is a romcom, February is essentially a dumping ground for disappointments and so seems to have been the case with The Last Thing He Wanted.
As mentioned above, writer-director Dee Rees also co-wrote and directed Mudbound, which ended up being a Netflix original film. Cassian Elwes also produced both this film and Mudbound.
Ben Affleck also starred in the Netflix film Triple Frontier
Rosie Pérez also has a small role in the Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It.
Willem Dafoe also appears in the Netflix film Death Note as well as in What Happened to Monday, a film which was acquired by Netflix for several international territories, including the US.
Toby Jones also appears in the Netflix series The Dark Crystal and will also appear in A Boy Called Christmas, which will be distributed by Netflix in may world territories, including the US.
Joan Didion, whose eponymous novel is the source for the film, is also the subject of the documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold which was acquired by Netflix and branded as an original film.
Dee Rees is arguably America’s foremost black female auteur film-maker.