Bad movies happen. It’s just a fact of life. But it’s hard to fathom how things went so far offcourse for Dee Rees’ The Last Thing He Wanted. Based on Joan Didion’s acclaimed novel, and starring Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, and Willem Dafoe, the film is by far Rees’ worst effort as a filmmaker; a lifeless, nonsensical mess that would bore you to death if it weren’t more entertaining to watch and wonder how it all went wrong.
Set in the 1980s during the heart of the Iran-Contra scandal, Hathaway plays hard-nosed journalist Elena, who has taken to covering the war in Nicaragua. She’s especially pissed at all of the war profiteering going on, the sacrificing of human lives for money, and isn’t afraid to throw tough questions at antsy Reagan officials trying to avoid the subject. So it’s stunning to see such an immediate, unbelievable turn for her, with only a weak attempt to justify it. After being busted down to covering the 1984 Presidential Election (no newspaper at that time would pull a reporter from covering wars to post polling data on the campaign trail), a disillusioned Elena decides to chuck aside everything she believes in to sell guns to the Contras for her ailing father (Dafoe).
None of this makes sense. The explanation we’re given is that Elena wants to help her father, but she doesn’t like him and he’s never given her a reason to. But there’s also Elena’s need to break a big story, to root out a truth that is supposedly being hidden by a vast conspiracy. We’re never clued in to what this conspiracy is, or who the players are. Everybody has some murky shit going down, or maybe it’s that the movie isn’t very good at explaining much of anything. It felt like I had fallen asleep and missed large swaths of the movie, and considering how ponderously dull it was that may very well have been true. I don’t think so, though.
Characters flit in and out without much rhyme or reason, the worst of all is Affleck’s mysterious agent dude Treat Morrison. Looking like he just took a triple dose of Ambien, Affleck sleepwalks through the performance badly, and it’s hard to blame him. There’s simply nothing to Morrison at all; he starts out looking like a political aide, then suddenly he’s secret agent guy, turning up in odd places and seducing Elena into bed. A bedroom scene which, I might add, has about as much sizzle as a $2 steak. As bad as Affleck is, Hathaway isn’t much better. To be fair, Affleck gives her NOTHING to work with, but Hathaway makes no attempt to overcome her listless co-star. Lousy, forced attempts at poignancy (Elena had cancer, which adds zero to her character) crop up at every turn, including a pet death scene that is gratuitous to the extreme.
How could Rees, a Sundance darling after tremendous dramas Pariah and Mudbound, have put in such shoddy work? It would be one thing if she didn’t have a hand in the adaptation, but the script is partly hers, as well. Badly edited and shot without any energy whatsoever, The Last Thing He Wanted culminates in a final scene, intended to be tragic, that instead elicited laughter from the audience here at Sundance. It was a fitting, final humiliation for a movie that could find Netflix reevaluating their partnership with Rees, which I’m sure is the last thing she wants to have happen.