It’s hard to think of another film in recent history that burns all of its promise so quickly within a span of two hours.
This political thriller premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to an extremely tepid response. It was later released in extremely limited theaters and on the streaming service Netflix on February 21st of the same year. Despite being touted as one of the streamer’s prestige titles for the year, it arrived on the platform with little to no fanfare, likely because of its debut at Sundance. Since its release, it has received some of the worst reviews of any film in the new year, which many expressed disappointment over.
Directed by Dee Rees, the film is adapted from the novel of the same name by Joan Didion, one of her only works of fiction. The project was announced almost immediately after the success of her previous film Mudbound and was co-written with first-time writer Marco Villalobos. Although it was originally believed to have been ready in time to make the fall festival circuit in 2019, the excessive editing schedule forced Netflix to push it back to early this year.
Set in 1984, Anne Hathaway stars as Elena McMahon, a hardline journalist working for The Washington Post. She’s following a vast conspiracy where the Reagan administration is allegedly supplying weapons to fighters in Central America. While she covers the presidential race, her estranged father Richard, played by Willem Dafoe, gets on-set dementia. From there, Elena unintentionally inherits his position as a gun-runner for the U.S. government and becomes a pawn in the very story she was trying to break.
I absolutely adored Rees’ previous feature Mudbound, the first “Original” film from Netflix that I truly loved. It was a complex, richly satisfying drama about racial tensions in America that refused to give any easy answers to the questions it raised. From Rachel Morrison’s incredible cinematography to an Oscar-worthy performance from an unrecognizable Mary J. Blige, it showed that she was a talent to keep an eye on.
Hearing news that her next project would be a politically-charged thriller sounded like an unexpected but unique step forward. With a stacked cast of recognizable names and some sadly relevant subject matter, it seemed like the film would be a way for her to further realize her potential as a filmmaker. Unfortunately, and it pains me to say this, The Last Thing He Wanted is just as bad as people say it is and quite possibly Netflix’s worst film to date.
At first glance, it can be somewhat easy to tell why Dee Rees signed on to write and direct this film. The story attempts to tackle issues left over from the wreckage of the Reagan Era, specifically with American interventionism in foreign affairs and instigating illegal conflicts for both sides. But pretty soon, she loses a grip on the story as it becomes increasingly and needlessly confusing with all sorts of story threads that never come together. I don’t know if that’s the fault of her, her co-writer Marco Villalobos, or author Joan Didion for making the story like this in the first place.
Moreover, The Last Thing He Wanted feels like it was directed by two completely different people, as if Rees just gave up and someone else finished the job. It never finds a clear stance on what exactly it wants to say for its subject matter or how it wants to treat the Latin American characters. And it definitely doesn’t help to clear things up whenever shadowy American bureaucrats show up in every other scene in a feeble attempt to contextualize just what the hell’s going on.
Anne Hathaway is unquestionably a great actress, but here she just feels severely miscast in the lead role. Elena is tough as nails and extremely determined to get to the bottom of the truth but is clearly way in over her head and doesn’t have the faintest idea of who the real powers and players are. Hathaway is mostly believable with this character in the first half but soon loses sight of what angle to play at and feel more like a caricature than a fleshed-out human being.
By her side during most of her adventures is Rosie Perez as Alma Guerrero, Elena’s trusty and loyal photographer friend. Perhaps the only actor in the film who manages to rise to the occasion, she is far and away the only Latina character here with any sort of depth or layers. She seems to have a clear understanding of how grossly corrupt the system in this world is but still tries to look for an optimistic chance to do the right thing.
Hell, even the usually reliable Willem Dafoe feels lost and out of place in this movie. As Richard McMahon, Elena’s long-estranged father, he spends the majority of his screen time drunk out of his mind and confused about his life. There is an element of tragedy somewhere as his mind slowly withers away and regrets the only things he can remember with his daughter, but there’s so little context between the two of them that it’s hard to grasp on.
Ben Affleck, Edi Gathegi, Mel Rodriguez, Toby Jones, Carlos Leal, and Julian Gamble round out the supporting cast. Sadly, none of them are really able to elevate the material when needed or give their characters much life. Affleck’s character is by far given the most screen time, but even then there isn’t much character development or intrigue for his part; if anything, he makes the situation even more confusing.
And even from a technical standpoint, The Last Thing He Wanted shows Dee Rees struggling to find a complete and unique voice here. Shot by Bobby Bukowski, the cinematography has a certain grainy quality to reflect its period setting and uncertainty of the storyline. It’s often done on tripods or mounts to create an illusion of control that the characters seem to think they have. There are a handful of close-ups or push-ins throughout where it tries to represent the characters’ headspace. It also occasionally uses the split-screen technique when Elena is on the phone with someone, which happens quite often in the film.
But the editing job by Mako Kamitsuna is so choppy and poor that it completely breaks any tension or intrigue in the film. It almost feels like the film is missing half of its scenes because the film frequently reuses footage from earlier moments. This is meant to give extra context or explanation for what’s going on, but it only adds further to the confusion and messiness of the plot. And the in-continuity segments are strung together in such a dull and unappealing manner that it feels like they’re trying to hide how incomplete the whole thing feels.
When it’s all said and done, The Last Thing He Wanted is an utter trainwreck of a thriller that wastes its timely potential. Despite her best efforts, Dee Rees is unable to wrangle this Joan Didion book into a cohesive feature film. Its fascinating premise and subject matter aside, this is a woefully miscast and highly miscalculated film that barely finds a moment of genuine intrigue or entertainment.
I know that with the whole world in full lock-down mode right now, it’s tempting to watch any sort of content that Netflix has to offer. But pushing through this slog of a movie when there are hundreds of other, far better options to choose from is literally the last thing any of us want.