I firmly believe that Dee Rees is a good filmmaker. I feel like I should get that point out of the way before I go any farther into this. Pariah is one of my favorite films, an empathetic story of a teenaged, lesbian African-American. It was a queer film in the modern era before queer film was cool, and it paved the way for subsequent films like Moonlight. Rees is owed a lot of credit for her contributions to the medium, even if she typically doesn’t get it. This is partially because her subsequent features have abandoned the young adult genre, Rees instead choosing biopic fare with Bessie and period drama with Mudbound, both of which I have yet to see. Here we have another period drama, albeit another decade of American history, The Last Thing He Wanted. It certainly lives up to the title.
The plot is more than a little confusing due to poor editing, pacing, and structure, but I think I have the gist of it. Elena (Anne Hathaway) is a reporter covering the unrest in El Salvador in 1980. The beginning of the film finds her and her co-worker Alma (Birds of Prey’s Rosie Perez) barely managing to escape the country as their press office is attacked by military forces. Cut to 1984, Elena has been prevented from doing any more investigating on the growing tensions in Central America. Being a reporter, she ignores these restrictions, and finds out about a plot to smuggle weapons into Nicaragua. Later, she receives a threat involving her father Dick (Willem Dafoe), who just so happens to be an arms dealer. Coincidentally, Dick ends up in the hospital, where he tells Elena that she must seal a million dollar deal that he had been attempting to make.
The movie is incredibly hard to follow, which is what makes the whole thing so unenjoyable. It feels like it’s coming at you out of order, when I don’t believe it is. The plot is organized in such an unruly fashion that it nevertheless feels like you’re not sure what’s supposed to be happening at any turn. After Elena completes the trade and is given suitcases of cocaine instead of money, she realizes she’s being played and manages to escape the man taking her to a secondary location. She leaves him in the wilderness, only for him to turn up again when Elena ends up in a dilapidated hotel occupied by Toby Jones and his maid. This is where I should introduce Ben Affleck’s character, who is second billed despite Perez possibly having more screen time than him. Affleck plays an ambassador named Treat who develops a relationship with Elena, popping up in random locations now and then to give her a helping hand. Why Affleck, who was one of the most marketable stars in the mid-2010s and has since seemingly vanished until now, is given such a basic role like this is an unsolvable puzzle to me.
The film flirts with historical context, but only feels like a generic thriller by the end. There’s a Ronald Reagan stand-in, and the upcoming election is a focal point for all of the characters. One minor role is apparently supposed to be a real Secretary of State, but the guy doesn’t have a Wikipedia page so I can’t assume he was actually involved in some grand Central American conspiracy. The novel of the same title has a better reputation, a sparsely written, pocket sized thriller that works more on impulse than nuance. The film barely works on impulse, and definitely doesn’t bother with nuance. I forgot that any historical context was even present by the end, frankly.
I wish that I could come up with more flaws in the movie. However, there isn’t much else to really point out when it comes to the technical aspects. The compositions and cinematography are competently crafted, the performances for the main cast are all serviceable even if many of the big names involved are simply flashes in the pan. I think that’s the problem though: everything else is just fine. There’s nothing to really compensate for the absolutely confounding story. There are plenty of aesthetically incredible movies where the stories just don’t connect with me. There are plenty of movies with stellar lead performances that are surrounded by mediocrity. The Last Thing He Wanted somehow manages to not have either of these things working in its favor. This might as well get added to the list of Sunday afternoon TNT flicks that no one thinks about outside of that context. Only it doesn’t even have that future ahead of it as a safety net, since it will inevitably disappear from Netflix’s front page, likely never to be seen again.