The Last Thing He Wanted
COVID-19 has upset my usual film-watching schedule fairly significantly, with cinemas closed and plenty of major films delayed anyway. That leaves streaming options, but even that is slim-picking at the moment, with Netflix Ireland not overflowing with notable original features and Disney+ still a few days away when this goes live. But I am a creature of habit, pandemic or no, so I had to take in something.
I almost, almost, went with Go Karts, obviously a Netflix kids movie, but one that at least looked fun, and with some decent review scores to boot. But, in the end, I strayed away to instead take-in Dee Rees’ The Last Thing He Wanted, an adaptation of the book of the same name by Joan Didion. Why did I do this, despite seeing the ghastly review scores? Maybe it’s the well-regarded director. Maybe it’s the frankly stellar cast, between Hathaway, Affleck, DaFoe and others. And maybe there are times when I feel like watching and reviewing kids films on my own is just not the way to go, so I should take in something darker, broodier and more grown-up instead. Was that the right call? Or do I owe the makers of Go Karts a huge apology?
1984: Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway) is a journalist known for reporting on the civil war in Nicaragua, now relegated to more basic work on the US Presidential election. When her estranged father (Willem DaFoe) becomes ill, McMahon is forced to care for him, and is drawn in to one of his shady schemes, selling arms to Central American militias with tacit approval from the administration. Seeking to both make the deal and report on the story, McMahon embarks on a risky journey, tailed by political instigator Treat William (Ben Affleck).
If COVID-19 is going to be responsible for a great many hardships, then I have a small one to add to the pile: how it caused me to end up watching this film. This badly-edited, poorly acted, occasionally incomprehensible film. How did this happen?
The Last Thing He Wanted is one of the most confusing pieces of media I have seen in my life. The plot description I have offered above should only be considered a basic understanding of what occurs, as characters frequently make strange, hard-to-understand decisions on the spur of the moment that take the plot off in a radically different direction to where it was going before. To wit: the spine of the film is about a hard-hitting no-nonsense journalist, who decides to become an arms dealer on the side. Or she’s only doing that to forward an investigation into the Iran-Contra Affair. Or something. This is one film where spelling a little bit out to the audience might actually have helped the experience, though going by the script maybe they should have been limiting the wordplay, not expanding it.
Let’s rewind a little. Hathaway is OK as McMahon, an under-the-kosh reporter who wants to be doing more with her profession than following Reagan on his way to a landslide victory in 1984, preferring the rebel-filled forests of Central America to sycophantic Republican fundraisers. Of all the cast, she’s trying the hardest at least. And that’s saying something: Affleck looks positively bored in a role that has the potential, on paper at least, be akin to his star-turn in Argo, while DaFoe is just chewing the scenery in a haphazard manner. Hathaway, with priors in doing great work with a small amount of worthwhile material, gets across a bit of what she needs to get across, but she can’t really carry the weight of this film, not when everything is chopped up in the manner that it is.
Maybe this is a result of the source material, that I am not familiar with, being a bit obtuse – I get a certain “gonzo” feel going by the narration – but the visual medium does not need obtuse for a taut political thriller, it needs clarity. McMahon gets a few lines to talk about the bad hands she has been dealt in life, a few phone-calls to her daughter stuck in boarding school, a few hops off of her crazed father, but the essence of a character never comes into view. Instead, she is shown as the kind of person that will happily jump in a car with an arms dealer she’s known for five minutes and then act surprised when he threatens to rape her (I think: another hard to parse scene). Despite Hathaway’s best efforts, she’s a strange blank canvass to follow around for two excruciating hours, waiting for some kind of revelation that will answer the central questions surrounding her, one that isn’t the character vomiting out her backstory. But the revelation never comes, perhaps thanks to the nature of the cut.
The editing here is frankly bizarre, as every other sequence seems to be missing a scene where the characters actually make clear what is happening: is Willem DaFoe’s father figure usually an arms dealer? McMahon seems both surprised and not surprised to find out that he is involved in trying to arm the Contras. Why does his daughter decide to become an arms dealer? She seems to hate her father, but is also strangely willing to commit the most terrible kind of crime at his request. Why is Anne Hathaway on the run in Costa Rica suddenly? She arrives and just starts wandering around the country with little in the way of rhyme or reason. Why is Ben Affleck following her around? Rees wants to seemingly show him as at the heart of Iran-Contra shenanigans, but also as just a hatchet man for higher-ups. Why are the two sleeping together? The film in no way needed that as a barely touched upon sub-plot. Why is McMahon posing as a maid in an off-the-map resort hotel in the last act? It’s a safehouse, only it isn’t, or something. Is she about the blow the Iran-Contra story wide open, or is this about something else? In all these instances, you are left genuinely left wondering is you accidentally skipped over something, with the film taking on the appearance of being just a random selection of scenes.
To take one example and expand on it, just over halfway through the film the McMahon and Williams characters meet up in a Costa Rican hotel, and have what appears to be a fairly tense exchange: McMahon thinks Williams is trying to stop her from reporting a story, Williams thinks McMahon is interfering journalist is way over her head. Their conversation happens from what seems like twenty different angles. Then cut to the two of them casually strolling outside the hotel, having an intense looking heart-to-heart about the problems in McMahon’s life. Cut to the two of them in bed together, discussing McMahon’s brush with breast cancer. Cut to McMahon being moved to some safe-house. I feel like we went from 1, to 3, to 7, to 98, without stopping in-between. And the entire film is like this.
Things especially fall apart in the last act, when any semblance of structure seems to completely fall apart. Things are set-up for what I presume is meant to be a shocking twist involving Ben Affleck’s character, that I think won’t really come off as that surprising (although, given how lost a viewer is likely to be, I suppose anything would be surprising). New, seemingly pivotal, characters are introduced in a remarkably blase fashion, and former enemies turn into allies at the drop of a hat. The final denouement is very hard to wrap your head around, and certainly leaves the viewer with more questions than answers: perhaps this was Rees’ intent, but if so it was a badly misjudged one.
The film looks OK at least? Leaving aside the issue of its visual story-telling, which is awful, it is shot and choreographed well enough, though one wonders why DaFoe is being kept in a permanent close-up whenever he is on-screen. As a look at the smoky world of 1980’s journalism, and the shadowy world of 19809’s American politics, it has some hooks. That being said, while the film’s use of a frenetic montage style is to its benefit in the early scene-setting stages, it becomes a serious fault by the conclusion.
That might also be because of the script, especially Hathaway’s confusing and largely superfluous narration, that I assume is quoting the novel in large stretches. When her difficult to parse prose recitations are matched with the awkward cuts and confusing visualisations, it just manages to muddle the proceedings even more than they were, even if the cinematography is actually of an acceptable level of quality. Take the following as a good example of the nonsense being depicted: “Somewhere in the nod we were losing infrastructure, losing redundant systems, losing specific gravity. Weightlessness seemed at the time the safer mode.” What? Then, the real kicker: repeating of dialogue in unnecessary flashbacks, the kind of hack technique a director of this apparent level should not need.
There is a very good story to be told, with this cast, about the Iran-Contra affair, about how it occurred, who was effected, and how it all came out in the end. But The Last Thing He Wanted is very much not that film. It’s a disaster in just about every sense of the term. The cast are at sea. The editing is all over the place. The script is a woeful mess. Save perhaps elements of Hathaway’s performance – proof that she is worthy of the many accolades sent her way in the last ten years – The Last Thing He Wanted is an astonishing flop. Netflix’ penchant for throwing money at anything going has proven itself a poor strategy for in this case, but I suppose it is also the perfect place for something this terrible to vanish into the ether. I’m sorry Go Karts. Get bent COVID-19. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).