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Based on the 1996 Joan Didion novel of the same name, Dee Rees’ The Last Thing He Wanted follows a reporter accustomed to war zones who finds herself stuck in something much stranger. Early-’80s arms shipments to Central American militias, governmental stonewalling, transactions in which there are many stages between payment and what’s actually being bought — these will all sound familiar to those who’ve studied the Reagan administration’s dealings with anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua. Those history buffs will have a slight advantage digesting a film that is confusing in both large and small ways — and it’s rarely the kind of confusion that fuels some of the great intrepid-reporter adventures.
The emotional and logistical struggles of our heroine, played with sweaty determination by Anne Hathaway, are the film’s clearest through-line; but after the intimate clarity of her debut, Pariah, and the wrenching Delta drama Mudbound, this is a pedigreed misfire.
Hathaway plays Elena McMahon, a reporter for the Atlantic Post (a stand-in for the Washington Post) whose beat in Central American hotspots has just been “frozen” by an editor who has caved in to commercial and political pressure. (Ah, so that’s why the actual paper’s name isn’t used.) She’s put on the campaign trail, flying around following Ronald Reagan’s re-election bid. It’s a horrible assignment, and soon she gets a reason to take indefinite leave: Her father (Willem Dafoe) is in the hospital and has no one to care for him.
She flies to Florida, where her dad — who left when she was a kid, and has always lived outside the law — is desperate for her help: “I got a big deal comin’ through,” he brags. But he can’t pull it off while confined to bed, and he’ll be half a million in debt if he abandons it. He convinces Elena to go in his stead, where she learns she’s supposed to sell a garage full of surplus military gear for $1 million.
Nothing about the way this deal goes down makes sense — even if we accept the premise that Elena says yes — but betrayal is a foregone conclusion. After a harrowing escape from a sketchy stranger named Jones (Edi Gathegi), she finds herself without money, without machine guns, and without friends in San Jose, Costa Rica. Good thing her old reporting partner Alma (Rosie Perez) is available by phone, where she can supply suspiciously meaty chunks of exposition now and then.
Alma was part of Elena’s earlier efforts to wrest information from Secretary of State George Schultz (Julian Gamble) about unofficial U.S. policy regarding the Contras. Schultz, whose full name is never said here, works with another official whose role is never quite clear: Treat Morrison, played by Ben Affleck. It’s an underwritten part played flatly, but Morrison is meant to be the key to many contradictions here: sometimes antagonistic to the reporters and sometimes helpful, involved in shady foreign policy and also a savior when Elena’s in danger.
Morrison’s scenes with Schultz are among the hardest to follow, and not only because the film’s sound mix didn’t play very well with the Eccles Theater speaker system. (Perhaps the Netflix technicians who wounded Mudbound‘s cinematography on the small screen, turning shadowy interior scenes into overcompressed glotches of black-and-blackish pixels, can do right by Rees and ensure this dialogue is comprehensible for streaming.) In these and several other scenes, the kind of spare, allusive dialogue that might crackle on a novel’s page has been given too little context by Rees and co-writer Marco Villalobos. On a couple of occasions, it sounds as if the actors themselves don’t understand what they’re saying.
We do grasp the guilt Elena feels on her occasional calls with her daughter, who’s alone at a boarding school and would rather be living with Elena’s ex-husband. We get the curiosity that keeps Elena, an obviously resourceful woman, from finding a way back to the States at the first hint of danger. And though the details are foggy (when did she learn she was going to be a maid at a near-empty seaside hotel run by Toby Jones’ hedonistic expatriate?), we more or less follow the many stages of her attempts to outrun whoever is trying to kill her.
We don’t, however, see her do any reporting, so it’s odd that she evidently has an exposé’s worth of notes assembled by the film’s climax. We probably don’t understand how, when Treat mysteriously winds up at the bar at one of the places she gets stranded, this almost deliberately uncharming man gets Elena to bare her soul, then go to bed with him. There’s no heat at all between the characters, and nothing in the film positions Elena as the stereotypical jaded war correspondent who’ll take whatever pleasure presents itself on the road. Whatever the case, Treat is certainly connected enough that he should be able to arrange safe transport for Elena back to the U.S.
An epilogue offers rushed, unsatisfying answers to some of the questions we should’ve been able to piece together as the action unfolded. (Left unexplained: Who was that dude in the black cowboy hat, spying from a distance in several scenes but never joining the action?) And it offers a reprise of a quietly fierce voiceover (presumably taken verbatim from the novel) in which Elena explains what drives her to spend time in the world’s most dangerous places. The stage is set at the end for the real-world scheme in which Reagan’s gang sold arms to Iran, ostensibly to free hostages there, but really to help war criminals kill commies in Nicaragua. That scheme might have been more convoluted than this film. But with characters like Oliver North and the Gipper involved, you can bet the dialogue was written in much simpler language.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: Elevated Films, Little Red Hen
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Rosie Perez
Director: Dee Rees
Screenwriters: Marco Villalobos, Dee Rees
Producers: Cassian Elwes, Dee Rees
Director of photography: Bobby Bukowski
Production designer: Inbal Weinberg
Costume designer: Ane Crabtree
Editor: Mako Kamitsuna
Casting directors: Billy Hopkins, Ashley Ingram
Rated R, 115 minutes
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