Even if the writing at times fails to fully express how everything fits together, Anne Hathaway’s performance and Dee Rees’ direction gives The Last Thing He Wanted, adapted from the Joan Didion novel of the same name, a leg to stand on when it comes to female anger, trauma, and work ethic.
Hathaway is Elena, an investigative journalist covering the 1984 presidential election. At the news of her father’s (Willem Defoe) declining health, Elena takes his place brokering an arms deal connected to a story she’s trying to break.
Elena’s personal and professional life blends together throughout the film, and Hathaway’s exhausted yet resilient portrayal of Elena shines through even through clunky, expositional dialogue. Elena’s past trauma’s — childhood with an absentee father, divorced, single mother, and a breast cancer diagnosis — is told to us upfront by Elena herself, in conversation with her father, one after the other in rapid succession that it’s difficult to grasp. And yet her storied past is clear as day in the way Elena pursues her story, and Rees’ direction, choosing to linger on shots, Elena’s mastectomy scar in particular. These moments, despite a quick, blown-over first acknowledgement, tell of the motivations that keep Elena in the game, even at its most harrowing moments.
The rest of the film does not have the same care in storytelling, however. The mysteries surrounding who to trust, the investigations into the arms deal in South America, and the motivations of Ben Affleck’s Treat Morrison never feel fully explored or expanded on. The political maneuverings of Treat and the rest of the United States government during a hot presidential election cycle feels like a wasted opportunity that could have gone further. Instead, Affleck engages in vague conversations regarding cover-ups, but isn’t on screen enough to justify the complexity of the story. While certain moments deliver on the conspiracy-thriller front, The Last Thing He Wanted never lands the emotional punch it wants to on the investigative side.
But it’s easy to connect with Elena as her personal life falls apart alongside her professional one, her last attempts to hang on to her only connections left. The musings on how our stories will be told, and whether we live past them or not is an added bonus to the film’s larger purpose, as well. Rosie Perez as photographer Alma Guerrero offers an enjoyable performance, if a very limited on. And Willem Dafoe always delivers.
The Last Thing He Wanted might not be the thriller you’re looking for, but stay for Anne Hathaway and Rosie Perez, at least.