The Last Thing He Wanted review – misfiring Anne Hathaway thriller

Mudbound director Dee Rees stumbles with a confused Netflix adaptation of Joan Didion’s political thriller about a conflicted journalist in the 80s

The Last Thing He Wanted, a package that must have seemed seductive on paper, with a red-hot writer-director, a stacked cast of Oscar winners and nominees and some juicy source material, has somehow mutated into a rather damp disappointment on screen, that initial, heady promise evaporating from every frame. It’s not quite the charmless catastrophe that others here at Sundance are claiming it is (and I’ve seen enough catastrophes here to know the difference) but it is an inarguable misfire, wrong or at least ill-advised decisions made at almost every turn.

There’s something strangely incomplete about it, as if, as in the case of The Snowman, the makers ran out of budget and couldn’t afford to film the entire script. The more likely explanation is that the writer-director, Dee Rees, and her editor spent a great deal of time locked in a suite, banging their heads in frustration, slowly realising the impossibility of the task at hand. There’s indistinct dialogue, abrupt character shifts and, most frustratingly, a plot that’s close to impossible to follow. There’s a difference between densely plotted and incoherent and too often her film falls into the latter category, overstuffing and overwriting when some more streamlined and sophisticated storytelling is needed instead.

Based on Joan Didion’s 1996 novel, the plot focuses on Elena (Anne Hathaway), a journalist with a “moral compass” who wants to spend her time and resources exposing political corruption and the cost it has on the little people. But her editor wants her covering the 1984 presidential election and so she finds herself on the road, frustrated, but also using her proximity to those in power to further understand the shadowy link between the US government and an increase in violent conflict in Central America. When her estranged father (Willem Dafoe) is rushed to hospital she takes leave but soon finds herself in even darker territory, helping him complete a dangerous deal.

As it begins, Rees, who broke out at Sundance with Mudbound three years prior, does something she continues to do throughout her biggest project to date: she follows a strong idea with a weak one, gaining our goodwill before immediately losing it. The film starts with Hathaway’s tireless journalist making notes and Rees chooses to visualise them, fractured and confusing, giving us hints at a plot without spelling it out or cleaning it up. But not long after, we’re drowning in dry, wordy voiceover that might have worked on the page but sinks on screen. Rees is trying to tell us a tightly paced political thriller. At times, briefly, we can see what might have been but there’s too much here to unpack and explain. Her ambition to do it all is ultimately her undoing.

It’s quite a maddening watch as Rees darts around carelessly from scene to scene, basic questions left unanswered, plot unfolding into an ungainly mess, and it’s made even more maddening because of the things she gets right: the period re-creation, some stylish directorial choices and her adept, if wasted, cast. Hathaway gives it her all and while she doesn’t always convince as a tortured and driven journalist thirsty for the truth, the effort goes far enough. Too often, I find her acting a little too visible – but she’s more restrained here, smartly reading the material and dialling her excesses back as a result. There’s also a thankless role for Rosie Perez as her colleague and friend, a one-note bad dad turn from Dafoe and an embarrassingly stilted Ben Affleck as a suit/unconvincing romantic interest. There’s no real attempt to flesh out the character of anyone but our heroine and so talent goes wasted with dialogue ranging from adequate to atrocious.

So much is thrown at the screen here that one wonders whether a miniseries might have been a more fitting way to adapt Didion’s novel, especially given that the film is a Netflix production. But as it stands, as a two-hour film packed with too much and somehow not enough, The Last Thing He Wanted is a thing that no one wanted.

  • The Last Thing He Wanted is showing at the Sundance film festival and will be available on Netflix from 21 February

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