Dee Rees is no stranger to adapting a good story. With her 2017 film, Mudbound, she became the first Black woman to be nominated for the best-adapted screenplay Academy Award. Rees seemed like a great fit to take on Joan Didion’s 1996 thriller, The Last Thing He Wanted, but somewhere in the process from the page to the screen, something was off. In fact, many things were off – like the convoluted plot, cliche-ridden decisions, awkward acting and overly dramatic score. What remains is yet another story centering the plight of United States citizens over the Latin American lives they’ve affected through politics.
The Last Thing He Wanted begins in 1980s El Salvador where journalist Elena (Anne Hathaway) and photojournalist Alma (Rosie Perez) survey the damage from the latest wave of violence. As Elena files her story to her U.S. outlet, the Atlantic Post, from a local newsroom, gunmen burst in. The two women flee for their lives back to the safety of the States, where they’re told to refocus on the upcoming 1984 presidential elections instead of what’s happening in Central America. However, just as Elena’s journalist instincts tell her to keep looking at the U.S. actions in the region, she’s faced with a personal crisis: Her father, Richard (Willem Dafoe, in a shockingly joyless performance), falls ill and suffers from memory loss. The once-promising reporter bows out of her gig to watch after him in Miami, but she soon becomes embroiled in her father’s shady business as an arms dealer to Central America backed by an entity Elena suspected was involved all along.
The script, which Rees and Maro Villalobos adapted from Didion’s book, is barely coherent. It’s easy to lose track of what’s going on, who’s lying about what and why Elena’s compelled to make some pretty awful decisions. There’s so much exposition, yet hardly anything happens on-screen. In a few gleaming moments, Elena has the chance to prove her resourcefulness, like showing she knows how to use a gun or finding the right place in a compromising situation to hide important documents. But these moments feel scant in comparison to how long it takes the movie to get there. Scenes and dialogue replay in pointless flashbacks and the tedious repetition makes the film’s almost two-hour running time feel excruciatingly longer. Things that are brought up are soon forgotten or made inconsequential. Although Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography does wonders to capture the natural beauty of some of the locations Elena’s mission takes her to, they’re not strong enough to rescue the movie from its several misfires.
While Hathaway’s character carries the movie, Perez’s once vibrant photojournalist at the beginning of the movie is reduced to manning a desk and waiting by a phone for Elena’s calls. She’s more or less unimportant to the plot, except for one purpose: Her steady presence in Elena’s life offsets the terrible optics the movie has about Latin Americans, who are shown to be ruthless and violent, and for the most part, disturbingly quiet. One of the few exceptions is Mel Rodriguez, who plays a kind of stateside figure who sets up these backroom ammunition deals and is one of the key figures who plunges the unwitting journalist to this deadly underworld. For much of the movie, Elena looks nervously around the brown faces surrounding her, not sure if they could be her father’s enemies. Conversely, Alma is at her beck and call, pulling together information and watching Elena’s dad when she’s out of the country trying to settle his debts. In thin scenes, the movie implies that Alma is a lesbian and lives with another woman, but she, too, is voiceless and only seen in the background, teasing the possibility of a much richer story before returning to the white woman in dangerous Latin America.
Yet the most damning problem in the movie’s conflicted moral center is that it tries to critique American imperialism and its messy CIA-backed interventions, yet filters the story through the lens of a white journalist. It has little-to-no-regard to what the people in countries like El Salvador or Nicaragua were going through at the time. They are so in the shadows of this story, it seems like the best dramatic moments belong to Elena and her dad or Elena and the mysterious U.S. official played by Ben Affleck. The latter is responsible for some of the most cringe-inducing scenes in the movie, but it is disappointing that even decades after the book was published, the voices of those most affected by these political chess games remain off the board.
The Last Thing He Wanted played at Sundance.