Dee Rees’ Netflix movie The Last Thing He Wanted feels strangely like a companion piece to The Snowman. That 2017 murder-mystery thriller gained infamy for a few reasons. First, every poster for the film featured the same crude drawing of a snowman, accompanied by the text, “Mister police. You could have saved her. I gave you all the clues.” Second, the lead character was named Harry Hole. And third, it was a baffling mess, in spite of a star cast (including Michael Fassbender as Detective Hole) and a great director (Tomas Alfredson, of Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Like The Snowman, The Last Thing He Wanted fails to give its audience all the clues necessary to form a coherent picture, and flops in spite of what should be a killer director/cast combination.
Adapted from Joan Didion’s novel The Last Thing He Wanted, Rees’ follow-up to Mudbound stars Anne Hathaway as Elena McMahon, a journalist who at least begins the movie determined to pursue the truth. Her beat is Central America, specifically the munitions being shipped into Nicaragua under the radar. As the conflict grows worse and the political pressure mounts, she gets stuck in Washington D.C. and reassigned to the Reagan campaign trail. When her ailing father Dick (Willem Dafoe) reappears in her life and asks her to help him with a job, she’s drawn back into the world of political espionage and gunrunners — because Dick is one of the men shipping the U.S. military’s surplus weapons into Nicaragua.
The story is gripping on paper, but not on film. The twists and turns in Elena’s story might have room to breathe in novel form, but packed into two hours, they feel rushed, and the motives are incomprehensible. Maybe Elena’s alternating dislike of and devotion to carrying out her father’s last job would make more sense if their relationship was a bigger story focus, but Dafoe exits the picture early. So maybe the film is more about her search for the truth? Except the story’s journalistic aspect is also only addressed in fits, in favor of spending more time building up its spy/thriller side.
The film’s momentum starts and stops as a result, including an interlude where Elena hides out by working as a maid for an expat played by Toby Jones. The detour, which is jarringly different in tone and content from the rest of the film, is much too long, even for Toby Jones enthusiasts. It’s even more baffling because it follows on the heels of a love scene that happens so suddenly, it feels shoehorned in for the sake of getting a little skin onscreen.
Hathaway is left stranded by her character’s rapidly changing motivations, and dragged further down by how much of the book’s prose is turned into would-be gritty monologues. A good cardinal rule is that action should be shown rather than told. There’s a lot of showing, as Elena is pursued from one city to the next by shady figures, but too much of the story is described to the audience via voiceover exposition. Elena is an avatar being pushed from one point to another, rather than a fully developed character.
The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better. Dafoe is gone before you know it. Rosie Perez, as Elena’s photographer and friend, and Ben Affleck, as a government stooge, dip in and out too much for the audience to get a clear sense of them. And so do all the other characters. As a result, huge revelations are doled out in flashbacks that feel totally unearned, revealing plot points that haven’t been seeded at all.
What’s most frustrating about the film’s incoherence is that there are still good sequences amid the chaos. Dick is mostly unaware of his dementia (or pretends to be), continuously asking Elena where her mother is, even though Elena has told him she died. But in what might be the film’s best scene, he forgets the words he’s going to say to her mid-sentence, and becomes so frustrated by his failing memory that he begins to cry. There are no guns blazing in that moment, no spies present — it’s just a second of emotional honesty and vulnerability. It’s an indication that all the clues might, in fact, be there to tell a captivating story about a reporter struggling with a professional passion that suddenly becomes extremely personal. Those clues are just obscured. The mystery vanishes as the film glosses over the human elements in favor of action.
The Last Thing He Wanted is streaming on Netflix now.