A thought enters one’s head about forty minutes into Dee Rees’ Joan Didion adaptation The Last Thing He Wanted: This movie, this assemblage of scenes and disappearing plotlines and characters in different kinds of mid-Reagan-era attire, is supposed to be a thriller. In fact, the film has already offered up conspiracies, gunshots, journos in peril, and a few other staples of the genre. But it takes the sight of Anne Hathaway in the classic movie disguise of a headscarf and oversized sunglasses and a bungled suspense sequence set in a Pan Am Clipper Lounge for the realization to sink in that this dud isn’t just going nowhere. It’s trying to get pulses pounding with the innate rhythmic sense of The Shaggs.
Here, one must acknowledge that Didion’s novel (her last) has its own bizarre tempos—the Didion groove of paragraphs of coolheaded prose followed by cascades of single-sentence staccato, packaged in self-aware narrative fragmentation and repetition. There is some strong writing in it, though it sounds wretched when repurposed as voice-over narration for Hathaway’s character, the journalist Elena McMahon: “Somewhere in the nod we were losing infrastructure, losing redundant systems, losing specific gravity. Weightlessness seemed at the time the safer mode.” And so on and so forth. Not exactly the stuff of which compelling yarns of geopolitical intrigue are made.
But then that’s the least of the problems with Rees and Marco Villalobos’ screenplay. A much bigger concern is the plotting, which is indecipherable and gappy with serious here-be-dragons areas. Elena, as we are first introduced to her, is a reporter for the Central American desk of a fictional newspaper called The Atlantic Post (The Washington Post in the novel). It’s 1984, and she has returned from El Salvador only to get reassigned to covering the Reagan reelection campaign. Then her semi-estranged father, Richard (Willem Dafoe), a shady Florida operator in the early stages of dementia, ends up in the hospital. He owes half a million to some even shadier operators who fronted it for a deal that he can no longer go through with on his own. Which is how Elena becomes a gunrunner.
Hathaway’s performance is probably very good. At the very least it seems overqualified. But our sense of Elena as a character is lost in some unbelievably ugly editing. One might make the case that some of The Last Thing He Wanted is meant to approximate Didion’s prose, namely in those instances where takes of extended duration (which occasionally resemble Scorsese dolly-ins and crane shots, except that they go for much longer) appear to cover multiple paragraphs of wordless script action. But a lot of it is simply pointless, with camera angles and cut points that appear to have been picked at random; one obvious example is a scene of Elena and Richard sitting and talking at a bar that is chopped together from no fewer than 15 angles, most of them as redundant as Klingon anatomy.
All of which only becomes more mystifying once one begins to imagine how these overlapping set-ups might be mapped on a set and the sequence of non-decisions that led there. This appears to be as much a director problem as an editor problem, given that Rees can’t seem to get through a dialogue scene without crossing an axis, and deploys the slow-rolling rack focus two-shots that have been a personal trademark since her low-budget debut, Pariah, at moments of dramatic inertia. The result looks less like controlled discombobulation and more like messy, disorganized prestige TV, directed without a plan. To be honest, the same was true of a number of dialogue scenes involving multiple characters in Rees’ acclaimed Mudbound; there it was less distracting and conspicuous, in part because the material was a lot more compelling.
In the context of suspense, however, Rees’ indifference to consistencies of perspective and matters of visual pacing is more or less disastrous, especially considering that The Last Thing He Wanted features multiple changes in location and a lot of intercutting, frequently leaving Elena’s point-of-view to follow her colleague Alma (Rosie Perez) and a U.S. official named Treat Morrison (a charmless Ben Affleck). Mostly, the film just relies on hack moves: echo-y aural flashbacks; piano-arpeggio montages of pieces falling into place that are puzzling because the pieces haven’t been previously introduced.
There’s a shootout in the midsection, and it’s predictably a mess. Elsewhere, the lack of momentum makes almost every scene feel like second-act downtime, to the point that the ostensible climax seems to come out of nowhere and the ending just feels like a bizarre joke. All of it ties back to American meddling abroad and a shadowy figure named Bob Weir, like the guitarist from the Grateful Dead. This was pointed out repeatedly when the novel was first published in 1996, though Didion claimed ignorance, despite having first made her name in part for writing about San Francisco in the 1960s. Regardless, it’s funny to hear the name repeatedly uttered in hushed tones.
What makes The Last Thing He Wanted ultimately so frustrating (while also elevating it a few notches above its awfulness as a thriller) is the fact that there are things it does quite well. Most of it comes down to having a more thoughtful attitude to the kinds of things that movies of this type never give a second thought: the realities and anxieties of Elena’s life in the mid-1980s as a divorced parent with a demanding career and a breast cancer survivor who went through a mastectomy; insecurities about motherhood, womanhood, and professional ambition. Its portrayal of media in the widely mythologized era of smoky newsrooms, telexes, electric typewriters, and bbbbring-ing phones is refreshingly free of solo stop-the-presses heroics. And Rees’ depiction of the Reagan era as a dark, deceptive period feels like a welcome corrective to our seemingly endless addiction to rosy, suburban ’80s nostalgia.
This all contributes to the impression that the director’s interest in the project came down to just about everything except the plot. Which is understandable given the source material, but doesn’t excuse the fact that The Last Thing He Wanted sputters on most of the basic terms it sets for itself. Still, there is at least some nobility to its failure.