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The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

CineHawk Review: “The Last Thing He Wanted”


Adapted from the 1996 novel by Joan Didion and distributed by Netflix, “The Last Thing He Wanted” is directed by Dee Rees, starring Anne Hathaway as Elena McMahon, a thrill-seeking war journalist reassigned to cover the Reagan campaign.

Elena cuts her coverage short to take care of her estranged, ailing father, Richard McMahon, played by Willem Dafoe, in the aftermath of her mother’s death. This fateful decision leads her on a path of danger and conspiracy as Richard unwittingly assumes his role as an arms dealer in Central America.

The film’s most impressive quality is its amazing casting, with performances by talented stars who do not disappoint. Hathaway sells Elena as a firebrand reporter, fearlessly challenging power, embarking on dangerous assignments in war-torn countries and bluntly speaking her mind to her higher-ups. Dafoe is always a spectacle to watch, with a charismatic, yet rugged presence as Richard, which makes his early exit from the film’s narrative all the more disappointing.

Marking his second major Netflix original film role after “Triple Frontier,” Ben Affleck plays Treat Morrison, a high ranking U.S. intelligence official of shifting loyalties. As with any good spy character, Affleck always plays his scenes with a subtle, nagging suspicion, even when he is supposedly on the side of the main characters.

Rosie Perez, in the role of Elena’s ever faithful confidante, Alma Guerrero, effectively conveys a more grizzled and wiser reporter who often cautions Elena against her riskier actions but nonetheless carries herself proudly and firmly through the rigors of her career.

An Academy Award nominee, Rees is adept in capturing the rougher aspects of the media landscape of the mid-1980s. From the chaos and violence of a war zone, to the frenetic urgency of a newspaper, to the desperation and terror of being caught in a shootout, she manages to capture the danger and intrigue of these situations while keeping them centered on the characters and their emotions.

That being said, the film’s plot is hard to follow. While the novel the film is adapted from is fictional, it incorporates a lot of real world context and detail surrounding the illegal involvement of the U.S. in Central American conflicts. Unfortunately, for those who are not the most read on this topic, it can make the events of the story difficult to understand after the start of the second act, even with Rees’ immersive and intimate direction.

The conspiracy that drives the plot of the film is also complex in all the wrong ways, more likely to confuse or frustrate instead of intrigue. When the true antagonist is finally revealed, the impact is dulled, as it was not backed up by a slow burn of suspense.

In fact, Rees’ direction cannot prevent long stretches of the film from feeling like a chore. The scene in which Elena has a breakdown in her dad’s place does little to reveal character and feels ripped from a dozen better movies. Moreover, the moment where she assumes her father’s gun running responsibilities does not even occur until 40 minutes into the runtime, which can be a real drag for those who were initially enticed to view the movie by its premise.

The confusion also seeps into the character dynamics. Though Hathaway and Affleck perform well with what they’re given, their relationship is not heavily fleshed out and takes an unexpected turn towards the end of the film that does not feel like an organic direction given what is established in the narrative.

“The Last Thing He Wanted” is a mixed bag, with a subpar script only elevated by superb direction and memorable performances. To those with precise knowledge of the story’s time period and political landscape, or perhaps who have read Didion’s novel, the film can feel like a tense, character-driven crime thriller. However, for the rest of us, it is a confused, bored retread of genre cliches.

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