In an attempt to avoid writing a completely negative review (which is against the principles of this blog) of Dee Rees’s The Last Thing He Wanted, I’ll focus on the new film’s strong suits. There is a good cast that includes Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, our national treasure Willem Dafoe, Rosie Perez, and Toby Jones. Though to be honest, none of them are near the peak of their strengths here, particularly Hathaway and the usually consistent Dafoe.
The film’s big accomplishment is taking the normally masculine-associated subgenres of noir and the paranoid conspiracy thriller and supplying them with a female protagonist. So Hathaway plays a reporter during the mid-point of the Reagan presidency who wants to avoid covering Reagan’s re-election campaign and focus on work she and her colleague, played by Perez, covered in El Salvador. When her absentee father played by Dafoe shows up unable to complete an arms deal where he’s the middle man, Hathaway’s character Elena impulsively decides to take his place and complete the arms transaction for him. This move is more plausible than it sounds because like the male protagonists of films such as The Parallax View and The Passenger, Elena is anti-social and her father’s arms deal intersects with the shady dealings between Latin America and the U.S. that she wants to cover. The messy, complicated female protagonist as well a man fatale played by Affleck surely have much to do with the film being adapted from the work of a female author, Joan Didion, as well as being made by a female director.
With a good cast, a complicated protagonist, and some interesting genre splicing and reversals, why does The Last Thing He Wanted seem to fall apart? The easy answer is that the film is predictable. You’ll guess what choices the characters will make long before they make them. The stronger answer is that the film lacks narrative consistency. The start of the film, showing Hathaway and Perez reporting in El Salvador, is basically a long flashback that almost feels like a trailer for a separate movie. Rees also largely avoids a film score until the last twenty minutes when heavy noir music abruptly begins to appear. Elena, the doomed hero, gets a thorough backstory, but none of the other characters do, leaving them simply good or evil. Overall, the film is a valiant effort. Maybe Didion was just difficult to film.