Sundance: The “Pariah” and “Mudbound” filmmaker has her first misstep, muddling compelling materials and a miscast star in Anne Hathaway.
There’s a motive why, over the course of a profession that has spanned almost six many years, Joan Didion’s exceptional physique of labor has acquired the movie adaptation remedy simply twice. In 1972, Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne wrote the screenplay for Frank Perry’s big-screen tackle her novel “Play It As It Lays,” a celluloid flip that Didion adopted up with varied contributions to different scripts unrelated to her personal books (together with the 1976 “A Star Is Born” remake).
Regardless of principally good evaluations for the Perry movie, even Didion appeared to rapidly get hip to the truth that her work isn’t essentially translatable to different mediums. Others certainly bought the memo, too, with virtually a half a century going by earlier than anybody else tried to show Didion’s gimlet-eyed writings right into a film. And time has not been type to the endeavor: Dee Rees’ “The Last Thing He Wished” is the filmmaker’s fourth characteristic and her first misfire, an incoherent providing that’s accomplished no favors by its unforgiving materials and even much less by an array of miscast stars and baffling narrative selections.
A few of that’s baked into Didion’s unique novel, usually deemed certainly one of her extra “spare” and fewer private works, and one which hinges on outrageous coincidences and skinny characters that drives a wonky political plot. It’s not an apparent selection for the “Pariah” and “Mudbound” filmmaker, although Rees’ curiosity in dialing in on the story’s fraught familial bonds supplies one thing of a window into what may need appealed to her concerning the challenge. In each of her earlier options, Rees was working with characters outlined by their households and their (usually unhealthy) relationships with one another, in “The Last Thing He Wished,” an identical dynamic unfolds.
Initially launched as a dogged, daring reporter who does her greatest work whereas within the line of (usually fairly literal) fireplace, Hathaway’s Elena McMahon has been hacking away at a narrative about revolution and violence in ’80s-era Nicaragua alongside her devoted photographer (Rosie Perez) earlier than all of it goes topside. Years later, the pair are nonetheless caught again in D.C. whereas their newspaper freezes any and all Central America jobs, protecting Elena from additional cracking the sorts of tales that drive her. It’s not the one factor happening in her life, as Rees and co-writer Marco Villalobos transfer freight-train-fast via different issues: her lifeless mom, her lonely teen daughter, a divorce, a cross-country transfer, a brush with breast most cancers, and the sudden reappearance of her swaggering father Dick (Willem Dafoe).
When Dick falls unwell in Florida, Elena ditches her lackluster gig on the marketing campaign path following Ronald Reagan as he weapons for a second time period, all the higher to assist her deteriorating dad and to, effectively, what precisely? Ditch the job she loves (even when her present task is missing), piss off her already sad editor, neglect concerning the tantalizing packet of pictures that ended up in her lodge mattress? All of that, and extra. Finally, “The Last Thing He Wished” will goal to make the case that every one of this — her unhealthy job, her sick dad, the pictures — are intimately linked, and but nothing coalesces right into a coherent narrative, not to mention one constructed on a collection of linked machinations that attain the higher echelons of varied governments and navy our bodies.
Dick’s sickness undoes every little thing we’ve already realized about Elena, from her dedication to her job to her hardened self-determination. Netflix’s official synopis says that Elena “loses the thread of her narrative” because the movie unfolds, nevertheless it’s actually “The Last Thing He Wished” that loses its thread, its narrative, and all of its management. Hopscotching from Miami to Nicagaura to Costa Rica and onward, Elena finds herself caught in a weird net that stems from her father’s insistence that she perform one final job for him, incomes him one closing rating earlier than he dies or completely loses his thoughts. Even though Elena is a whipsmart reporter wanting to unearth the misdeeds of “warfare pigs” scattered round Central America, she takes on the favor, which requires nothing lower than her moving into her dad’s footwear.
Oh, Dick’s job? Unlawful gun runner, promoting to the very individuals Elena has been making an attempt expose. It’s a large enough ask on paper, however filtered via a movie that’s each sprawling and skinny, it turns into incomprehensible. Tacky flashbacks and callbacks and voiceovers try and paper over sure significantly messy sequences, however the movie stays incomprehensible. At almost two hours lengthy, “The Last Thing He Wished” nonetheless feels as if each different scene was left on the modifying room flooring, maybe in an try and echo the looser model of Didion’s novel. Nothing connects, nothing gels, and each thread is misplaced.
Hathaway tries her damnedest to maintain Elena on observe via an more and more weird journey, however her character’s shifting priorities and motivations by no means enable the actress to sink into Elena. There’s a way that the character herself floats via the proceedings, her steely resolve crumbling within the face of so many double-crosses and issues. It’s a doubtlessly compelling thought, however that’s erased by a jarring return to Elena, Hardened Warfare Reporter. For a seasoned stringer with nerves of metal, she’s horrible at studying individuals, remembering particulars, and appearing with any regard for security. She’s the sort of gal who goes on the run in an odd metropolis and doesn’t hassle to lock her shady lodge room door behind her.
Becoming a member of her are a motley crew of miscast stars who don’t seem to exist inside the identical movie. Ben Affleck is there, too, in matches and begins (maybe his contract solely demanded 4 days of labor from the ostensible co-lead?) as a authorities heavy who’s both serving to Elena or hurting her, pulling the strings to make use of her or going out on a limb to rescue her, fucking her or fucking her.
Defoe is electrical as her rangy dad, however he and Hathaway by no means wrangle plausible familial chemistry, as a substitute scanning as bemused adversaries anticipated to out-act one another for the hell of it. Edi Gathegi seems as one more friend-or-foe who arrives and disappears at random, a bizarrely plotted character arc that solely will get the barest of conclusions throughout a truncated finish scene that’s nothing greater than prologue. And that’s earlier than Toby Jones reveals up, doing a limp approximation of his personal Truman Capote, and lengthy earlier than David Arquette seems because the youthful model of a personality apparently so vital that he will get a flashback self simply as anybody (Elena, the viewers) is bothering to study his identify for the primary time.
And but for all of the illogical plotting and bewildering character work of “The Last Thing He Wished,” different sides of Rees’ craftsmanship are sometimes on show. Set principally within the mid-’80s in such different places because the red-white-and-blue marketing campaign path, a insurgent coaching camp in the midst of nowhere, and a dilapidated seaside resort on the sting of the world, the period-appropriate components are immaculate. From costumes to manufacturing design, it’s all an entirely plausible world (other than the truth that, narratively, completely none of it’s plausible). Rees’ artfully crafted pictures elevate even the wackiest scenes, and an early dolly shot that takes us (and Hathaway and Perez) actually via an airport is a stunner.
The remainder of it, although? It’s the very last thing any Didion fan would need, any Hathaway fan, any Rees fan. Didion’s work is good as prose, however makes for awkward screenplays; this can be a misfire that ought to have stayed on the web page.
“The Last Thing He Wished” premiered within the Premieres part of the 2020 Sundance Movie Competition. Netflix will launch it on February 21.