The Last Thing He Wanted REVIEW – A Baffling Misfire

Sometimes we find gems on Netflix, other times, there's movies like this.

The Last Thing He Wanted is a tough movie to pin down. Not because it blends genres together, or because it purposefully complicates itself by operating as a puzzle box. It is incomprehensible in almost every conceivable way.

Anne Hathaway stars as Elena McMahon, an investigative reporter who is putting together an exposé on the Contra arms trades in Central America. As she dives deeper into the possible mishandlings by the U.S. government in the region during the Reagan re-election campaign, she comes to realize that her estranged father Richard (played by Willem Dafoe) is wrapped up in the trade personally, carrying out deals with militias as his latest scam for quick cash.

As Richard’s health declines, Elena carries out his final wish by taking his place in the next deal, only to get wrapped up in the very events that she was once reporting. Oh, and talented performers such as Ben Affleck, Rosie Perez, and Toby Jones pop in and out from time to time — mostly when the movie needs some kind of information dump to help put together all the disparate pieces that this movie has.

What makes The Last Thing He Wanted even more frustrating is its pedigree behind the camera. Writer/director Dee Rees hasn’t had a misstep in her career up to this point, working on impressive, soulful projects such as Pariah and Bessie before shepherding Netflix’s Mudbound to three Oscar nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay. It would only make sense that her follow-up, one that is based on a popular Joan Didion novel no less, would be able to coalesce into something artistically significant. Instead, we have just the opposite, a movie so incoherent that it functions as if someone had maliciously taken out 45 minutes of material right before the premiere in an attempt at sabotage. Or maybe an intern dropped one of the film reels into a shredder.

The film’s editing is rough at best, seemingly trying to make sense out of what is a lot of tangentially related footage. An early scene establishes Elena McMahon as a no-nonsense journalist and strong-willed person as she confronts a general (or maybe a congressman — it’s not very clear) and Affleck’s Treat Morrison at a fundraiser, effectively stopping the light, good-natured affair for an intense barrage of questions on hard-hitting topics. The scene also seems to set up what the main conflict will be: Elena McMahon against the will of government and special interest groups hoping to sweep her story under the rug. The first few scenes in the film are even a good showcase for Anne Hathaway, who is clearly offering a committed, intense performance.

Though once Willem Dafoe’s character gets involved, it effectively changes the film into something else entirely. What that “something else” becomes is beyond my comprehension, however. As Elena further entangles herself in this web, all sense of character and plot motivations dissipate. The editing becomes more curious, and the film plops in disconnected scenes with characters you haven’t seen in a while whenever it sees fit. Ben Affleck, one of the main selling points of the movie, disappears from the movie for approximately 30-45 minutes, until reemerging in an out-of-place scene while eating cake in a corner office.

Strangely, the film also appears to be apolitical. Despite taking place during a fictionalized version of 1984, with Ronald Reagan running in his re-election campaign and Hathaway’s Elena McMahon researching the Contras, there’s a noticeable lack of commentary. Whether or not this is a byproduct of the film appearing to have fallen in a meat grinder is beyond me, but its issues-oriented first act never amounts to much.

As the film enters its second and third acts, it also begins to repeat lines of dialogue from early on as voice-overs, as if to cue in the audience to plot revelations and provide clarity. It’s a simple editing trick that many movies use to help audiences grasp a film easier. In the case of The Last Thing He Wanted, it’s an unsuccessful choice made in post-production in an attempt to save the movie.

The Last Thing He Wanted is the kind of bad movie that is so nonsensical that you begin to wonder if it’s your own fault for not understanding it. It operates like a horrible fever dream, dropping characters in one location after another without a grasp on its own internal logic. You’ll inch towards the end of your seat, leaning in closer to the screen as if that extra ounce of focus will put everything in perspective. Believe me, it won’t help. By the end, when the film “wraps” everything up – and after you’ve popped a few blood cells straining to concentrate – the only sensible thing to do is to throw up your hands in frustration.

Although we just watched a notable amount of Netflix films compete for Oscars in this year’s Academy Awards, The Last Thing He Wanted is the latest example of Netflix still struggling to produce quality original films on a routine basis. For every Marriage Story there’s a Sextuplets, The Last Summer, The Silence, and many, many more. That’s why the blame should fall squarely on the studio instead of Dee Rees, the actors, or any of the other craftspeople that lent their efforts to this film.

Such a colossal misfire shouldn’t happen with this collection of talent. It speaks to the lack of infrastructure in fostering quality cinema on a consistent basis, releasing a product in The Last Thing He Wanted that just seems unfinished. Upon finishing it, you’ll scratch your head in utter bewilderment, wondering how on Earth this came together so poorly.

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The Last Thing He Wanted assembles an awesome cast and crew for what is one of the more convoluted movies of recent memory.