Netflix has a tendency to bury content, and man oh man, did they bury Dee Rees’s The Last Thing He Wanted. Yes, the filmmaker’s follow-up to my much-adored Mudbound received nearly universally negative reviews out of the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and then Netflix did not provide review screeners to press, and then I never once saw any sort of auto-play ad or any other hype for the film when I logged into Netflix myself. Last year, I couldn’t escape the nonstop promo for the extremely terrible 6 Underground, a crime against humanity for which I am sure Ryan Reynolds was handsomely paid. But The Last Thing He Wanted didn’t deserve to be abandoned so thoroughly.
It’s a frustrating film that is sometimes ponderously slow and increasingly asks its characters to do the dumbest goddamn things, but it’s adequately made, crisply shot, and boasts a performance from Anne Hathaway that might be the most grittily confident she’s been since playing Catwoman. Rees is a skilled adapter, and she adds some gorgeous visual impact to Didion’s sparse prose. The ensemble cast is stacked. If I am very generous in my reading of The Last Thing He Wanted, I would say it comes very close spiritually to J.C. Chandor’s Triple Frontier, another movie that considered the hypocrisy of American imperialism but fell just short of criticizing its own characters. And much like Triple Frontier, when The Last Thing He Wanted makes a wrong turn, it never quite rights its path.
Hathaway plays Elena McMahon, a veteran D.C. journalist with the Atlantic Post (a stand-in for The Washington Post in Didion’s book) who has survived breast cancer, fire fights in Central America, a bad divorce, and constant verbal sparring with U.S. government officials. It’s the mid-1980s, and after barely escaping from a crumbling El Salvador alongside her colleague Alma Guerrero (Rosie Perez), a photojournalist for the same newspaper, Elena has pushed her editors to pay more attention to that part of the world. But resources are tight, the U.S. government is denying being involved in the region at all, and the 1984 presidential race between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale is heating up. Do readers really care about revolutionaries rising up against oppressive governments in an entirely different continent?
Elena and Alma are passionate, but they’re ignored by their all-white, all-male editors. And Elena’s attention becomes increasingly divided when her absentee father waltzes back into her life. Dick (Willem Dafoe) has always been stylishly dressed (aviator glasses, suit jackets, gold jewelry), foul-mouthed (dropping the f-word slur often to fellow patrons at a D.C. bar), and mysterious, never once confirming to Elena what she already guesses about how he makes his money—until he needs her help. As Dick becomes increasingly ill, he asks Elena for a favor: Go meet a guy in Florida. Talk to him about whatever Dick has been “importing-exporting.” Drop off merchandise. Collect payment. This job will pay $1 million, and Dick already owes some loan sharks $500,000. Can’t his daughter help him out?
With that agreement made, Elena is pulled into an increasingly escalating situation for which, despite all her years reporting in Central and South America, despite her knowledge of the shifting political dynamics of the region, despite her awareness that her father is into some shady shit, she is thoroughly unprepared. And as Elena struggles to find her way out of the mess her father has made and in which she is currently mired, she runs into an array of characters whom she can’t quite decide to trust. Treat Morrison (Ben Affleck, nearly as smarmy here as he was in the aforementioned Triple Frontier!), a U.S. government official with whom she has butted heads in the past, mysteriously appears in the country. The sarcastic Jones (Edi Gathegi), who uses his ill temper to get out of answering any of Elena’s questions. Paul (Toby Jones), who acts like he’s doing his own Truman Capote cosplay out in the jungle, who provides cover for Elena but who also clearly has his own motivations for housing her. Who are all these people, treating countries and cultures as interchangeable pieces on their own private chess boards? How does Dick know them? And how is Elena going to get out?
Set against the Iran-Contra scandal, The Last Thing He Wanted makes clear early and often that its intention is to question American (and European) interference around the world, and that Elena will be our guide as the heroic journalist battling to share the perspective of the people left behind. That’s not to say that Elena is flawless—Rees through her script and Hathaway through her performance both work to make Elena a very real, layered woman, with varying traumas and passions and regrets—but that the film wants us to trust her. Her intentions are pure. Her disgust with her father, but her core love for him, are both genuine. Her desire to tell her editors looking for campaign coverage to fuck off is principled, and the script gives Hathaway’s Elena numerous scenes to play the Good American. “It’s not just business. It’s real people’s lives down there. You can’t just look away.” “The incumbent cowboy is already neck deep in four years of imperial deceit, but you’re right, the polls don’t reflect that.” “Enjoy your war games, I’m going back to my life.” Hathaway spits and snarls and presents Elena as a woman who is so used to getting out of sticky situations that she has no idea how to navigate out of one that endangers her life, and I appreciated that the movie lets Elena be so flawed.
Stepping backward, the misguided nature of Elena—that she thinks she, an individual person, can stand up against an entire imperialist system intent on crushing others to its capitalist and fascist will—is what syncs up so well with Triple Frontier, which looked at the culpability of the U.S. military in the ongoing drug wars around the world. But where Triple Frontier failed by giving its heroes an easy way out, so too does The Last Thing He Wanted compromise our protagonist’s intelligence in making clear its final message about the evils of the U.S. government. Look, you’re not going to get any argument from me about that—the United States has for decades fucked around in other countries’ affairs for its own material gain! But The Last Thing He Wanted saddles Elena with some serious lapses in judgment and has her make idiotic decisions that slow down the movie’s momentum and drags its narrative fluidity. This is a slight spoiler, but that Elena sleeps with a source is extremely infuriating, an exhausting cliché at this point for female journalists, and totally out of character for who we know Elena to be at the point this happens. Once that narrative shift occurs, The Last Thing He Wanted is too far gone.
There are some really lyrical turns of phrase here, including recurring narration in which Elena says of this whole affair, “We were younger. I was younger,” and the script well-captures the myopia of a man like Dick (describing Havana before the Cuban Revolution as a “real town” to go out on a date) and the deeply ingrained corruption of a U.S. operative like Treat. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski can’t quite match Rachel Morrison’s magical visuals in Mudbound, but he does nail the hazy gloom of cigarette-smoke-filled newsrooms, the verdant wildness of the jungle, and the torturous claustrophobia of being on the campaign trail. It just that none of these various elements fit together exactly right, and so the execution of The Last Thing He Wanted never quite meets its aspirations.
The Last Thing He Wanted started streaming on Netflix on Feb. 21, 2020.
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