The Last Thing He Wanted on Netflix is based on the Joan Didion novel of the same name, but – alas – retains little of its source material's drama, poetry or nuance. Didion is a formidable writer whose prose in The Last Thing He Wanted weaves like a jigsaw puzzle being made as it is being assembled.
Adapted for the screen by Dee Rees (of Mudbound fame), The Last Thing He Wanted stars Anne Hathaway as one of Didion's famously complicated heroines – Elena McMahon. Elena is a journalist at the fictional The Atlantic Post, who starts the film covering rebellions in El Salvador.
Her life is caught up in the story, but soon that story shifts when pressures from above freeze her desk and reassign her to President Reagan's reelection campaign. But Elena has a nose for trouble, in no small part gifted from her father.
Played by Willem Dafoe, Dick McMahon is a gun runner who has been set up by enigmatic forces to deliver guns to an unstable Nicaragua. It's 1984, and no, the year is not a coincidence, as a mysterious narrator details some of the story from an unknown date in the future.
Are you confused yet? That's okay. In the novel, the confusion works – it's told by someone who already knows the outcome but still has to piece the clues together. On screen, snatches of the story are told disparately, out of sync with each other. We never get the denouement that we need, that the novel itself delivers.
What Rees does with inimitable talent is frame the landscape in familiar yet uncanny ways. We see it through Elena's eyes.
Netflix is home to stories like Narcos and Triple Frontier, which (to greater or lesser success) tell similar stories about people getting caught up in games they don't know they're playing, trying to affect change either for the greater good or their own benefit.
The Last Thing He Wanted's movie version, however, never lets the audience in on the game, its rules, or what it means to win.
This is a frustrating way to watch a movie. Especially when half the dialogue feels pulled directly from Didion herself and the other half from a high-school history text book. By the way, if you are unfamiliar with the political landscape of Central America in the 1980s, good luck.
And then there's Ben Affleck, who plays Treat – an American ambassador and generally shady guy™ whose apparently limited purpose in the plot only makes sense at the very end.
Introduced for the film (ie not in the book) is Julian Gamble as George Shultz (Reagan's real-life secretary of state), who dodges Elena's questions frequently and without any respect shown to her or her profession (and is also a generally shady guy™).
He's surrounded by other maybe real-life people doing maybe real-life things. This addition to the story only makes you feel like you missed a week of school and have fallen behind. The emotional reckoning towards which Elena is hurtling feels less like Greek tragedy in its inevitability and more like bored resignation to the plot prescribed by Didion.
The Last Thing He Wanted pillages the original material without an understanding of Didion's best qualities or the talents of its stars (Ben Affleck may not be Laurence Olivier, but here he is somehow more wooden than usual, while Rosie Perez is almost wholly ignored and Willem Dafoe is a Bad Dad and little else).
Any fan of Didion's work will be frustrated, any fan of political thrillers will be bored, and any fan of Rees will be disappointed. She is a talented filmmaker, but she just couldn't make this work beyond a few beautiful, era-accurate shots.
In 1996, Michael Wood wrote for the New York Times of the book: "[The Last Thing He Wanted] comes to us in fragments, out of sequence, full of mystery, littered with glances at the movie it might make – will make, if we are lucky."
Reader, we were not lucky. We were not lucky at all.
The Last Thing He Wanted is available to watch now on Netflix.
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