Film Review: ‘The Last Face’

The Last Face
Courtesy of Saban Films

Director Sean Penn has made his version of an Angelina Jolie movie. It's a tale of war-torn Africa that's really about two beautiful movie stars trying to save the world.

Last year, “Beasts of No Nation” told a story of mutilated innocence in an unnamed African hell zone, but it didn’t feel compelled to add a token white hero (the caring photojournalist! the conflicted U.N. peacekeeper!) for the audience to identify with. “The Last Face,” an endless, logy cataclysm of a war-torn political drama directed by Sean Penn, goes right back to the look!-here-are-some-movie-stars-in-the-maelstrom paradigm. The film is set in some of the most blood-soaked territories of Africa – South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia — and it’s full of jaggedly edited sequences in which children lie on operating tables with their chests blown open, corpses appear in fly-buzzing piles and homemade bombs and machine-gun fire explode out of nowhere at deafening volume. At the front and center, though, are two characters who are in the crisis but not of it: Charlize Theron as Wren Petersen, a globe-trotting physician and activist, and Javier Bardem as Miguel Leon, a surgeon to refugees who lives his life in a state of triage. These two meet in Liberia in 2003, fall into an affair, argue about whether they love each other, and then break up (not necessarily in that order). “The Last Face” is Sean Penn’s version of an Angelina Jolie movie: It keeps advertising its compassion, yet it’s really a drama about two beautiful movie stars trying to save the world. Who, after all, can’t identify with that?

The last film that Penn directed, “Into the Wild” (2007), was an aesthetic breakthrough for him: It had a rhythmic and visual freedom that his earlier films (“The Pledge,” “The Crossing Guard”) didn’t, and a subtler humanity as well. But between that film and this one, Penn starred in Terrence Malick’s masterpiece of lyric memory, “The Tree of Life,” and it would appear that the Malick touch has now exerted a major influence on him, and not in a good way. These days, if an independent film includes one artful shot of a wheat field that lingers for more than four seconds, the filmmaker will inevitably be hailed as “a new Terrence Malick,” but the Malick influence is not, by and large, something to celebrate. (If you look at his recent films, even Malick is too influenced by Malick.) “The Last Face,” at heart, is a straightforward drama (or should have been), but Penn stages it as a needlessly fragmented and dreamy art poem. There are no establishing shots, so the handheld vérité stuff leaves the spatial dynamics of each setting a bit vague, and the whole film is stitched together by voiceover, with Wren and Miguel pouring out their overly mournful thoughts to us.

Take, for instance, the issue of why Wren does what she does. She leads an organization called Doctors of the World, which was created by her late father, and this is her way of attempting to live up to his legacy. But wait: When she’s in the chaos of a war zone, administering aid to children, she feels closer to her father, but also trumped by him, as if she herself were invisible. We know all this — essentially, the entire rather muddled inner life of the character — because Charlize Theron tells it to us, with limpid and repetitive dismay, on the soundtrack. The repetitions are a Malick tic: hidden emotions turned into incantatory motifs. Or, at least, that’s what Penn seems to think he’s doing. But “The Last Face” would have been a better movie if it had an actual screenplay, rather than the bare-bones one credited to Erin Dignam.

Wren gets pulled into Miguel’s orbit in the middle of the night, on the road, when he’s delivering an African baby with a desperate last-minute C-section. Afterwards, she looks at Miguel, and he’s shaggy and suave, devoted to all the right things, and she, with her buttoned-up daddy issues, is just waiting to let her hair down. The film’s conflict, as presented, is this: Though he burns with the desire to save lives, Miguel is something of a player. Wren learns that he was carrying on an affair with her associate volunteer (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos, from “Blue is the Warmest Color”), and it scalds her. Yet the Miguel we see is tender, devoted and often heartsick. It’s hard to resist the interpretation that he’s Sean Penn’s rather self-flattering stand-in: a stud of compassion.

Technically speaking, “The Last Face” is often an impressive achievement. Penn is a gifted filmmaker who doesn’t sugarcoat the horror of what he’s out to show us. The medical scenes are often brutal, not so much because of the wounds or the blood but because we’re watching children die. The message hits home, because really, how could it not? Yet Penn would do well not to mistake his own global caring for an artistic impulse. “The Last Face” was greeted with jeers at its Cannes press screening, and that’s because no matter how “well-meaning” a director may be, there’s something inherently eye-rolling about being asked to care about the tragedy of African children through the POV of two lovelorn glamourpusses. If you really take the message of the movie to heart, it just forces you to acknowledge that the story — to quote Humphrey Bogart — doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

Film Review: 'The Last Face'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Competition), May 20, 2016. Running time: 131 MIN.  


A Mars Films, River Road Entertainment release. Produced by Bill Pohlad, Bill Gerber, Matt Palmieri. Executive producer, Jon Kuyper.


Directed by Sean Penn. Written by Erin Dignam. Camera, Barry Ackroyd; editor, Jay Cassidy; production designer, Andrew Laws; costume designer, Diana Cilliers; music, Hans Zimmer; casting, Christa Schamberger.  


Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Jared Harris, Jean Reno.

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  1. ceares says:

    I have to nitpick about the Jolie dig. While she doesn’t direct anything I want to see, her movies are not of the ‘white savior’ ilk. Her Bosnian movie was about Bosnians and cast that way.

  2. African_of_Kenyan_origin says:

    Sigh! Why? Just. Why? Let us try this another way. Africa. Not blackdrop for white feel-gooding. Africa. Not a country. War. Not just African, is even American (I know. Shocking). Black Africans. Known to have emotions and more dimensions than one (startling, yah!). To psychologists–why is it that to this day certain white folks, without any sense of irony, think it is sane to take a fantastical Africa of their illusions to turn it into a backdrop for their puerile, weak, anemic emotions? Why? Is there an anthropology/science behind it? Is there a name for this psychosis and why it persists? Charlize? (gasp). Et tu?

  3. Thank God, Penn has his second career as best friend of murdering dictators to fall back on after yet another bomb.

  4. Stan says:

    I saw the Gunman, figuring it couldn´t possibly be as bad as they said. I lasted 5 minutes.

  5. Alice Peters says:

    Another round of actors I love dragged into the mire of one of that self-aggrandising buffoon’s pantomimes. Please, no more! Especially you, Bardem. This is the second time now! A “fool me once..” kind of situation.

    I’ve been eyeing this one suspiciously for ages, because I love Charlize Theron as an actor and I know how much real aid work she actually does, and very sincerely, but I’ve also heard Sean Penn talk on many occasions and I was trying to weigh up the chances of it being beautiful and heartfelt as opposed to racist and tone-deaf. Given that it’s been a Sean Penn project for so long, I had a feeling it would be the later.

    I’ve heard that Robin Wright was originally interested in having the lead in this long before she and Penn got divorced and I am amazed that two women as smart and self-aware as Wright and Theron thought that Penn wouldn’t turn in an end product like this. I mean they probably both know it now, but sheesh. I feel especially bad for Charlize, since she does always seem down-to-earth and thoughtful when she talks about her Africa Outreach charity. It’s unfortunate that Penn clearly doesn’t get it as well as the women he’s dated do.

  6. stevenkovacs says:

    Sean may have been wise to instead of this flop to have done the movie El Chapo was going to finance: ‘Jeff Spicoli: Weed Hunter’

  7. BillUSA says:


    They’re like a police officer who slams on the brakes and writes himself a speeding ticket while in pursuit of an escaping motorist.

    And don’t get me started on Spicoli.

  8. HDPR says:

    into the wild was a work of art. f**k off, hater.

  9. Not U2 says:

    Penn is a talentless hack. Why ANYONE let’s him direct ANYTHING is beyond me.

    • Alice Peters says:

      I want to know why actors of this calibre are still agreeing to star in his car-crashes! Please make him go away forever. Put him on a raft and push him into the ocean.

    • BillUSA says:

      Riding the coattails of daddy’s reputation.

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