Dee Rees blew me away with her terrific Deep South period drama “Mudbound”. Her highly-anticipated follow-up couldn’t be a more different experience. “The Last Thing He Wanted” is what happens when a movie focuses too much on intricacy and not enough on coherence. As a result, not only does it lose itself but it loses its audience. And in this case it never is able get back on track.
It pains me to write those words because Rees showed such precision and control with “Mudbound”. Here her adaptation of Joan Didion’s 1996 novel is rich with ideas and ambition. It’s also loaded with a stellar cast that includes Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, Willem Dafoe, and Rosie Perez. But it’s the script which Rees co-wrote with Marco Villalobos that weirdly tries to do too much in some areas while at the same time offering us too little in others.
Even beginning to understand the story would require some grasp of Nicaragua in the early 1980s. The Sandinistas, the Contras, America’s interests in the region – all pivotal pieces of the backstory and those unfamiliar with it may want to read up on it first. The movie begins in 1982 El Salvador with Elena McMahon (Hathaway), a writer for the fictional Atlantic Times, and her close colleague Alma (Rosie Perez) investigating war crimes with potential ties to the US government. These are the movie’s best moments as things heat up and the two barely escape with their lives.
Back in Washington Elena eagerly begins planning a return trip to Central America, confident that she’s onto something linking Nicaraguan rebels with high-ranking government officials. But her editor has other plans. He reassigns her to cover the 1984 presidential election. An infuriated Elena reluctantly agrees but secretly continues compiling information for her ￼Nicaragua story.
All of that is essentially setup for the real story. Elena gets a call that her father Richard (Willem Dafoe) has been hospitalized in Miami. Despite their strained relationship she goes to Florida to find him showing signs of early-stage dementia. It turns out Richard is a low-level gunrunner who has a honey of a deal set up in Costa Rica. But due to his condition he’s unable to see it through so he asks Elena to go in his place. She inexplicably agrees and soon finds herself embroiled in the very story she’s trying to break.
From there things only get muddier and convoluted as characters pop in and out giving long dialogue-thick discourses which only adds to the messiness. To be fair it’s confusing and disorienting by design. But instead of adding suspense it leaves the audience in a haze begging for anything resembling clarity. The fog clears somewhat in the crazy haphazard final ten minutes but it’s too little too late.
As I mentioned, characters come and go and come back again, talking a lot while telling us little. An incredibly dry Ben Affleck plays Treat Morrison, a US diplomat who seems to have his finger on the pulse of every shady Central American dealing. Should we trust him? Edi Gathegi is even more ambiguous showing up at the strangest of times and then vanishing. And perhaps the most bizarre (and boring) is Toby Jones who plays an American expat who gives Elena a job as (of all things) a maid and gopher. He appears in a needless third-act segment seemingly yanked out of thin air.
The bulk of the load falls on Hathaway who turns down her normal radiance to portrayal a seasoned yet world-weary reporter with baggage. She’s a single mother, a breast cancer survivor, romantically detached – all things that could have added meaningful depth if explored with more feeling. We get hints of emotional complexity but it’s quickly tossed aside for more surface level stuff. But Hathaway deserves credit. She pours her all into Elena, but even she can’t make sense of some of her character’s late-movie decisions.
The biggest frustration with “The Last Thing He Wanted” is that you can see it has the makings of a really good political thriller. It’s built like a thriller and paced liked one too. But it lacks the narrative cohesion needed to bring its many moving parts together. So you’re left with an ambitious movie that looks the part but is maddening in its inability to make sense.
VERDICT – 2 STARS