Review: How ‘The Last Thing He Wanted’ Went Wrong

As a fan of Dee Rees’ previous films and as someone who loves Joan Didion’s eponymous source novel, it’s safe to say – and yes, this joke is thoroughly unoriginal at this point – that this film is the last thing I wanted. It’s unfortunate and baffling that the talent of Dee Rees, plus Anne Hathaway, Willem Dafoe, Rosie Perez, and Ben Affleck, has produced a movie this bad.

A quick synopsis: The Last Thing He Wanted focuses on Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway), a foreign correspondent familiar with the horrors of war. She’s investigating the US Government’s involvement with the Nicaraguan Contras, two years after running for her life out of El Salvador (if you don’t have much knowledge of US-Central American relations in the late 20th century, you may have to do some reading to understand the plot). Around the same time, her deadbeat father, Dick (Willem Dafoe, predictably brilliant), falls ill. His job has always been a mystery to her, but as his condition deteriorates it becomes clear that he’s been one of the gun-runners supplying military-grade arms to parties in Nicaragua. He’s meant to do ‘one last job’ which will earn him $1 million, half of which he owes to other people. Elena, taken by her father’s pitiful state, promises to do the job for him – take a cargo plane to Costa Rica, drop the weapons, pick up the million, and go home. Of course, the job doesn’t go as planned, and she ends up hurtling around Central America with none of the promised money, a mysteriously-provided fake passport, and no idea who to trust. 

So, what went wrong? There are two main issues: character and mood. 

How do you solve a problem like Elena?

The main difference between Joan Didion’s 1996 novel and this adaptation is the protagonist. In the novel, Elena McMahon is not the narrator – the narrator is an unnamed political journalist who provides information to the readers by digging up documents and conducting interviews with the key players years later. This narrator also knew Elena because their daughters went to the same Malibu private school, before Elena had a crisis, divorced her husband, and took a job as a campaign-trail journalist in Washington. To the narrator, and therefore to the reader, Elena is a mystery. “This business of Elena McMahon, then, is hard for me,” the narrator admits. “This business of what ‘changed’ her, what ‘motivated’ her, what made her do it.”

By merging these two characters together, Anne Hathway’s Elena McMahon is simultaneously the hard-eyed cynic – delivering near-verbatim the narrator’s monologues about 80s capitalism and depression – and the troubled woman in over her head. While the reason she stays in Central America is, plausibly, journalistic curiosity (something which remains ambiguous in the book), in other ways the merger really doesn’t work. 

Unlike book-Elena, film-Elena is established in the opening scenes as practical, savvy, and experienced, trekking through massacre sites in El Salvador in camouflage gear. Yet the film chooses to adhere to the novel’s description of Elena landing in Costa Rica with the weapons, where her naivety is starkly illustrated in her choice of wearing “a black silk shift bought off a sale rack at Bergdorf Goodman.” It seems improbable that film-Elena, who we’ve seen doggedly question politicians and belligerently yell at her editor about hard news, would think it smart to wear a nice dress and heels to a weapons drop-off, and yet she does. For that matter, why would a whip-smart war reporter choose to take on a gun-running job of the very kind she’s trying to expose? At least in the novel, Elena has little idea of what she’s been asked to do; film-Elena seems like an idiot rather than merely ignorant. 

In another scene taken from the novel, politician Treat Morrison (Ben Affleck) finds Elena sitting in a hotel in Antigua, eating, alternately, bites of bacon and spoonfuls of chocolate parfait. In the novel, it’s one of the first scenes, set in the morning, done while calmly reading a newspaper in a white dress. It sets up Elena as meticulous but strange: removed from reality. In the film, Elena eats her weird meal at nighttime, looking mournful and lonely – more Bridget Jones than a woman of mystery. It’s moments like these, which keep the detail of the novel but jettison its context, that make the film so frustrating. The subsequent ‘love story’ between Treat and Elena is treated in the film entirely without chemistry or build-up. There’s no reason for a dogged political journalist to fall into bed with one of the very politicians who evades questioning about shady deals. Again, this makes more sense in the novel, where he’s a stranger to her, and she’s been on the island for weeks: “alert in the wild too long,” as the narrator surmises. 

Attempts are also made to make Elena McMahon an empathetic character, more fleshed-out than the intriguing cipher of the novel who “remained remote most of all to herself.” This includes a new character: friend and colleague Alma (Rosie Perez), who trades exposition/intel back and forth with Elena over the phone. Unfortunately, helping Elena is all Alma does in the film, making their supposedly deep friendship seem contrived. (It’s also an absolute waste of Rosie Perez’s talent.) Even less successfully, there’s a clunky exposition drop early on wherein Elena spells out to her father all of her achievements, making sure the audience knows that she became a successful journalist, had a daughter, and survived breast cancer. Despite these mechanisms that try to humanise her, Elena isn’t a well-formed character. She may not be as enigmatic in this adaptation, but she still lacks constancy, and  it seems less like a deliberate choice than subpar writing. 

The only prescription is more noir 

The plot of this film is, simply, confusing. While the novel is a convoluted, murky thing, it somehow works in the written form; the twisty plot is less important than the terse, cryptic prose and the specific world Didion conjures up through the slightest of details. The novel feels like someone telling you a story with their arms folded, a hard stare in their eyes as they pensively chain-smoke. It’s noir, in other words, and a slow-boiled one at that. Rees’ adaptation tries too often to be a fast-paced thriller. The film’s strongest moments are where the pacing is slow, deliberate, and tense; attempts to increase the action jolt you with their inconsistency and make the narrative feel implausibly rushed. Plus, the extra shoot-outs and car chases just add further ingredients to an already over-stuffed plot.

There are two scenes where the film felt, briefly, like it had righted itself. One is early on, when Elena is meeting her father’s friend, Barry, for information about Dick’s gun-running job. The film cuts between shots of the two characters walking towards each other down a dock. Over a soundtrack of ominous strings and tense drums, Elena walks slowly, smokes a cigarette and wears a silk scarf over her hair, looking like Audrey Hepburn in Charade. The score continues during her conversation with Barry, where the dialogue is sharp, her manner steely. The second scene involves Elena sitting alone in a hotel in Costa Rica, her darkened room tinged with fluorescent pink lights that shine off the highlights in her hair. She jumps as the phone rings, and the film captures her face in tight close-up as she answers. 

These two scenes were the rare instances where Rees and her colleagues tapped into the precise tropical-noir vibe of the novel and managed to transmit it visually. The scenes felt exciting, like something had clicked: this is what I wanted from a Didion adaptation. And there was something exaggerated in these scenes, an element of self-aware pastiche – Elena’s cigarette held just so, the silk scarf plainly theatrical given the absence of wind to mess up her hair, the lighting in the hotel room too artful. But I’d rather we’d been given a Last Thing He Wanted adaptation that was  too overt in its influences, instead of the muddled, tedious end product that we got. There was cheesiness in those two scenes, to be sure, but the film would have been thoroughly more entertaining if it had cut the extra run-of-the-mill action scenes and leaned into the hard-boiled camp. The characters in this text have names like Dick McMahon and Treat Morrison, for God’s sake. Give us a movie to match. 

The Last Thing He Wanted exists mostly, then, as a cautionary tale. By adapting most of the details directly from the novel, but trying to change its fundamental atmosphere, the film ends up being tonally, stylistically, and narratively uneven. All we can hope is that this is a rushed misstep from Dee Rees, and that she’ll go on to make the kind of quality films we already know she can make. In the meantime, it’s best if this one settles to the bottom of Netflix’s algorithm ocean, not to be seen again.   

The Last Thing He Wanted is now available on Netflix.

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Zoë Almeida Goodall is a researcher, writer and freelance editor living in Melbourne. She was a participant in the 2019 Melbourne International Film Festival Critics Campus program. Currently, she is attempting to draw together her research interest in feminist social policy with her film criticism. Her work has been published in Cause a Cine and Screen Education; issue 94 of the latter is where you can find the analysis of marriage and masculinity in A Star is Born (2018) that you never knew you needed. Twitter: @zagoodall

Zoë Almeida Goodall