2020 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: There is almost always a highly anticipated festival title that fails to live up to expectations. Few would have expected this year’s disappointment to come from director Dee Rees. A follow up to quadruple Oscar nominee “Mudbound,” Rees’ thriller, “The Last Thing He Wanted” is a confusing melange of half-baked plots and melodrama.
Adapted from the Joan Didion novel of the same name, Anne Hathaway stars as Elena McMahon, a journalist from DC searching for what’s next after her editor freezes her years-long investigation into Nicaraguan Contras. Elena is a cancer survivor and divorced mom who sent her daughter to boarding school rather than be saddled with guilt for leaving her all the time to work. The only importance these details are given is to prove that work will always be her highest priority.
It’s clear almost immediately that there are going to be problems. In voice over, Elena talks about violence and her work and whether anyone cares. But all of these thoughts, accompanied by fragments of written text, are disjointed and disconnected. It is a confusing introduction into a story that will never make any more sense.
Relegated to travel with the Reagan re-election campaign, Elena is frustrated and feeling lost. Her estranged father Dick (Willem Dafoe) shows up full of excitement for what he promises is finally his big score. Dick is a low-level arms dealer about to close on a sale in Costa Rica. He also suffers from dementia and when he’s unable to go and make the deal himself, Elena reluctantly takes it upon herself to go in his place. It is an entirely illogical step for Elena who is already well aware of the dangers, has no assignment in place to justify the trip, and no outside support. There is also no reason why she should have any feelings of guilt toward her father that would compel her to carry this out. It’s always about the work with her, we know. But we aren’t ever given enough details to even partially understand most of the decisions she makes.
It’s hard to know exactly where “The Last Thing He Wanted” went wrong. Anne Hathaway is a gifted actress. Dee Rees is a talented writer and director. As a production company, Netflix is notorious for giving their directors a lot of control over their projects. But the script, co-written by Rees and Marco Villalobos, is incomprehensible. There is very little in the way of character development and very little history given to contextualize why the Contras are so important. It feels like large chunks of the story are simply missing, as though someone went in and deleted all the connective scenes that would make it make sense.
Because of this, it’s hard to say whether any of the performances were good or bad. Hathaway is certainly committed to the role as much as she can be. Ben Affleck plays a trench coat-wearing, shadowy government agent like he belongs in a 50s film noir. Who he is and what he’s doing are never explained. Rosie Perez is one of Elena’s colleagues, a character that didn’t exist in the novel and doesn’t fully exist in the film. She’s there to feed information to Elena when necessary, but has no actual character of her own.
“The Last Thing He Wanted” is disappointing and unfortunate. There are traces of good filmmaking and hints at the captivating story that inspired it. But nothing about this film works. Not even the title, which makes sense in retrospect, but doesn’t earn its significance.