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Review: ‘The Last Thing He Wanted’ Crumbles Under its Own Weight

February 21, 2020
5 min read

Book-to-screen adaptations always make me nervous, especially if the book is a great piece of work from a renowned writer. What assuages one’s fears in such a situation is the promise of a good cast and crew for the film. With Joan Didion’s ‘The Last Thing He Wanted’, Netflix put together a rather good team.

Dee Rees had made a mark with her Academy Award-nominated, ‘Mudbound’, and before that with ‘Pariah’, the story of a teenager exploring her sexual identity. Considering how well her filmography had fared, it was expected that something similar would come out of her next Netflix project. Sad to say, the film fails to capture the many expressions of the story that Didion had expertly brought forward with her novel, and all in all, the film remains yet another adaptation that proves why books are always better.

The Last Thing He Wanted Plot

Elena McMahon is relentless when it comes to searching for the truth. We first meet her in El Salvador in 1982, in the middle of a warring nation, reporting from the ground. She is ready to face the dangers that come with her job, but it is all worth it because she is exposing the truth. It is here that she gets a whiff of an arms deal and starts questioning the source of it. Where is it all coming from? Who is paying for this war and mayhem? Who chose money over life? These are the questions that she wants answers to.

She is forced to flee the scene and comes back to America hoping to find another way back. But time passes by, and two years later, she finds out that the investigation has been frozen. Whatever assets she had, whatever story she was working on, it all has to go away. She has to turn her attention towards the Presidential elections. In the midst of this, she meets with her father who is showing signs of dementia. There is no one to take care of him, so Elena has to step up. Her father speaks about the final deal that he needs to close so he can spend the rest of his life in peace. Because he is too ill to get it done, Elena has to take his place.

The Last Thing He Wanted Review

The Last Thing He Wanted’ has a rich story, at least in the novel. This is the story about journalistic integrity; it is about exposing the malpractices (to put it lightly) of the government; it is about a father-daughter relationship; and the struggles of a woman who is trying to do her job right while also being there for her family. There is so much that one can take away from it. On top of that, it also delivers an intense thriller that keeps you engaged throughout the entire read. And this is why it is a shame that none of these things could completely materialise on the screen.

In the attempt to tackle so many things at once, the film gets lost somewhere in between and comes out with nothing in particular. There is only so far you can go with a hollowed narrative and a plot that has no sense of direction. Because there is so much to cover, the film is also in a hurry, jumping from one scene to another. It doesn’t have time to breathe, and a result, everything gets muddled up.

The audience has nothing to hold on to. We want to root for Elena, we want to know what’s going on with the deal, we really want to care. But everything happens in such a rush that it all just passes us by and nothing sticks at all. Perhaps, a longer runtime, or maybe even a miniseries, would have served the story better, giving it the treatment it deserved.

What ‘The Last Thing He Wanted’ should have had, to begin with, is a direction. Out of the ten things that the story rests upon, they could have just focused on a couple, given the time constraint they had with presenting it on the screen. This would have also allowed the actors to get a better handle of their characters. When you have Anne Hathaway and Willem Dafoe, you know that there will be no compromises on the front of performances. But they can’t work their magic if they don’t have something to work with.

Despite her role being the central focus of the film, Hathaway is held back. She tries to inhabit Elena, body and soul, but the effort is wasted when the protagonist was already lost on paper. Dafoe brings his own fervour to the ailing Dick McMahon, but it doesn’t do any good to the film that has already sunk under the weight of the story it was supposed to tell and the expectations that everyone had from Rees regarding it.

Rating: 1.5/5

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