The Last Thing He Wanted (2020)
Director: Dee Rees
Screenwriters: Marc Villalobos, Dee Rees
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, Rosie Perez, Willem Dafoe, Edi Gathegi, Toby Jones
Despite its popularity, Joan Didion’s work has been largely left alone by the movie industry, aside from an adaptation of “Play It as It Lays” (the screenplay of which was co-written by Didion herself) – it seems movie-makers have long been keen to leave the unfathomable mastery of Didion’s stories on the page. The excitement was therefore palpable when Dee Rees announced she was recruiting Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck and Willem Dafoe to star in an adaptation of Didion’s “The Last Thing He Wanted”. Having proven herself as a remarkable filmmaker with Pariah and Mudbound, the concept of Rees teaming up with this colossal cast to take on the mighty Joan Didion seemed like a gift from the movie gods.
Sadly, The Last Thing He Wanted is the last thing anybody wanted from Dee Rees and crew, as it fails miserably on almost every conceivable level.
Rees loses the plot in a labyrinth of disjointed scenes, baffling information and one-note performances, creating nothing more than a pale imitation of Didion’s great novel. The movie never bothers to outline the stakes, make us care about the characters or create a cohesive chain of events. What should be an urgent and complex mystery is reduced to a boring anti-thriller unworthy of anybody’s time.
Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway) is a journalist for the Atlantic Post who, much to her dismay, is assigned to cover the U.S Presidential Campaign when her story on possible American arms-deals with the Contras is frozen. After receiving word that her estranged father has fallen ill, Elena quits the Campaign Trail and flies to Florida to take care of him. Elena’s Father, Dick McMahon (Willem Dafoe) reveals himself as an illegal gun-runner who just so happens to have a huge shipment of guns heading into the heart of Elena’s story. After admitting he is too sick to fly to Costa Rica with the shipment, Elena decides to step into her Father’s shoes.
Once inside Central America, the film dives into the ridiculous.
The million-dollar pay-day Elena’s Father promised turns up in the form of cocaine blocks, of which Elena takes only one and simply carries around with her for most of the film, only to later ditch in the back of a taxi for no good reason. After fleeing from a suspicious character named Jones (Edi Gathegi), Elena attains a fake passport and uses it to fly to Antigua to meet with American Ambassador Treat Morrison (Ben Affleck), who is potentially the dullest character to ever be captured on film. Trapped in Central America, Elena chooses to finish her story and follow an abundance of thin and seemingly nonsensical threads to their very ends in an attempt to expose U.S interference inside of Nicaragua.
Part of what makes Joan Didion such a compelling author is her ability to write as if she’s telling you a story you already know. Didion’s third-party narrator speaks to the reader as if they are already fully versed and up to date with the 1984 U.S Presidential Election, the political unrest of Central America and the public details regarding Elena’s involvement in illegal arms-dealing. Although it’s difficult to follow Didion’s complex story, she makes the reader feel just as much a part of the novel as any of the active characters. In contrast, Rees makes Elena the narrator of the movie, which robs the viewer of their opportunity to feel like they are solving a puzzle or participating in the action. Rees has us so far removed from Elena’s journey that we have no clue who she is, what she is involved in or why we should even care.
With a single line of prose, Didion’s work revealed multitudes of information in regards to what a certain character might be thinking or feeling. For example, when speaking of Elena’s battle with breast cancer, Didion writes ‘Treat Morrison knew it because he recognised the scar. Diane had the same scar.’ By this point in the novel, we know that Treat had a wife named Diane who has recently passed away. This is the way we are informed of how that happened. From this sentence, we know that Treat and Elena have become intimate and that Treat might be projecting some of the love he felt for his wife onto Elena, given their shared illness. From a single line of unspoken prose, we understand Treat’s motivations, we know his compassions, we know his weaknesses, and we know why he is a part of this story. Dee Rees does not have the luxury of speaking to her audience in such a way; so what does she do to make up for that? Absolutely nothing.
In Rees’ version of the moment, Elena and Treat open up to one another after one brief conversation in a bar. Nothing they say or do suggests they desire or even like one another, but in the next scene we see them lay together in bed. Without access to their inner dialogues, their reasons for becoming intimate appear completely random and meaningless. While she lays naked beside him with her mastectomy scar on display, Treat briefly tells Elena about his wife’s fight with breast cancer, but the scene lacks the same emotional punch as the moment does in the novel. When we were told this information via a third-party narrator, we understood Treat as a closed-off character who carried secret tragedies. When Rees has Treat speak his pain aloud, it feels like nothing more than staged exposition and does nothing to illustrate why he is emotionally connecting with Elena.
To create mystery surrounding their activity in Central America, Didion never explicitly outlined any of her character’s motivations. Instead, she hid clues in her text that allowed the reader to participate in figuring out character motivation for themselves. Rees’ strengths within her previous work lay in her ability to capture the family dynamic, which is perhaps why she tries so hard to emotionally motivate the characters in this adaptation. Rees mimics Didion in having the characters appear detached from both each other and the action, that is until she has them participate in moments of abrupt oversharing. These emotional moments in which characters explain their motivations to one another feel disingenuous and staged. It was what Didion didn’t say that gave us the best understanding of her characters. In contrast, Rees has them say too much and by doing so says nothing at all. The hollowness of Didion’s characters was an aspect of the story that was able to speak to and capture the emptiness of American democracy. Rees settles with sheer emptiness itself.
Anne Hathaway half-heartedly attempts to capture the nuances of Elena McMahon, which isn’t much to behold, but it’s more than Ben Affleck contributes. Affleck does absolutely nothing with Treat Morrison; he delivers the blandest of bland performances, rarely even bothering to change his facial expressions or engage with the action in any way. Willem Dafoe, Toby Jones and Rosie Perez don’t get the space to perform their usual magic as their characters only crop up to deliver dull exposition before disappearing for hours at a time, or even all together.
Didion disorientated her readers in the non-linear flow of Elena’s journey, gradually revealing information until the story was brought into complete focus. In contrast, the overly tidy unraveling of events that take place in the last five minutes of the film seems like a desperate cry to convince the viewer that the film understood what it was doing all along. If you have the patience to make it to those last five minutes, there is no doubt you will agree that the whole thing was anything but worthwhile.
Didion once wrote, ‘We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget’. Joan, we can only hope this is true of Rees’ adaptation of “The Last Thing He Wanted”.
Written by Leoni Horton
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