After releasing critically acclaimed films like “The Irishman,” “Marriage Story,” “Mudbound” and “Roma,” Netflix has proved itself as one of the most prolific film production companies in the world. At its best, Netflix serves as a home for big-budget, sophisticated adult dramas from visionary directors, featuring brilliant actors and charismatic movie stars. In theory, “The Last Thing He Wanted” checks all of these boxes with one important caveat: The movie is an incoherent, ridiculous exercise in boredom.
From director Dee Rees, “The Last Thing He Wanted” follows veteran political journalist Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway) as she investigates the U.S.’ covert military involvement in 1980s Nicaragua. As McMahon digs deeper, she becomes a part of the story, along with her criminal father (Willem Dafoe) and a calculated government official (Ben Affleck). If that description seems vague or confusing, that’s because the film lacks any sense of reason or organized plot.
Based on a novel by Joan Didion, “The Last Thing He Wanted” may market itself as high-level-conspiracy, exploring international espionage, but ultimately, the movie manages to be equal parts disorienting and stale, serving no real purpose. With dialogue that vacillates between perplexing hints of conspiracy and cringe-inducing Sorkin imitation, “The Last Thing He Wanted” manages to squander talent and potential, taking a fascinating subject, cast and filmmaker and making a high-concept thriller with no tension or intelligence.
In his 10 rules of writing, acclaimed crime fiction author Elmore Leonard said, “When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.” “The Last Thing He Wanted” feels almost like a thought experiment on that concept, making a film composed entirely of dispensable moments.
As the lead of the film, Hathaway does her best to elevate the broken material. McMahon is a relatively common crime fiction archetype, acting as a striving journalist who stoically questions her surroundings and attempts to control every situation. With a character like McMahon, however, it’s essential for the film to justify or explain each of her decisions so the audience has at least a minimal understanding of the conspiracy at hand. “The Last Thing He Wanted” disregards this common practice, making Hathaway’s performance a strange mixture of wooden anger and mild bewilderment.
Opposite Hathaway, Dafoe easily gives the best performance of the film as Elena’s eccentric criminal father, Dick. While his scenes with Hathaway may be weighed down by overly stylized attempts at banter and ridiculous exposition, Dafoe creates a fully realized character, conveying a poignant sense of regret. Dafoe’s entire career has been highlighted by similar turns as electric supporting characters, and in a better movie, his performance may have garnered reasonable critical acclaim.
Unlike Dafoe, Affleck appears to be virtually sleepwalking through his role as government figure Treat Morrison. With a surprisingly small amount of screentime and basically no discernible character traits, Morrison is one of the worst performances Affleck has given in recent memory. In his scenes with Hathaway, their chemistry is virtually non-existent and certainly isn’t aided by a contrived subplot about their romantic involvement.
Affleck’s career is in a fascinating place, with his new film, “The Way Back,” coming out on March 6. After a run of uninteresting work and battles with addiction, Affleck will be a fixture in film culture this year with upcoming releases “The Last Duel” and “Deep Water.” “The Last Thing He Wanted,” however, is a rocky start for Affleck’s attempted comeback.
The most surprising element of the film’s failure is the presence of director Dee Rees. After her previous films “Pariah” and “Mudbound,” Rees had established herself as one of the premier up-and-coming voices in independent film. With “The Last Thing He Wanted,” Rees appears to have lost some of that momentum, never fully grasping any kind of coherent sense of narrative or character.
But, as a benefit of the film’s Netflix release, “The Last Thing He Wanted” won’t likely be panned as a significant failure. Without a theatrical release or tangible box office results, it's hard to characterize the film as any kind of financial or commercial disaster. Instead, “The Last Thing He Wanted” will probably fade into relative obscurity, toiling at the bottom of the Netflix queue, never to be truly evaluated.
As an artistic achievement, “The Last Thing He Wanted” serves basically no purpose, but as a cultural artifact, the film may live on as an example. Audiences and critics alike crave these kinds of stories from talented people with the proper resources and distribution. Sadly, “The Last Thing He Wanted” is a reminder that even with all of the proper pieces in place, sometimes a bad film is just unavoidable.
Contact Chris Carr at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.