Writer-director Dee Rees’ career continues to be a fascinating journey to follow. From her breakthrough feature debut, the soulful coming-of-age indie “Pariah,” to the Oscar-nominated literary adaptation “Mudbound,” the filmmaker has been confidently expanding her range with every new effort. That gutsy spirit is very much at the center of her latest, “The Last Thing He Wanted,” a fast-paced, ’80s-set political thriller with a murky tinge, whose pacing and visual style lands somewhere between “Z” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Sadly, the filmmaker’s panache only goes so far here, failing to translate the unnecessarily complicated script into something coherent to watch.
Adapted by Rees and Marco Villalobos from Joan Didion’s novel of the same name, “The Last Thing He Wanted” often feels exhausting and airless, so much that it borders on incomprehensible at times. Still, there is some nobility in this messy, massively scaled failure, an ambitious gamble that spans a vast list of locales (including Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Los Angeles and Miami) against the backdrop of the Iran-Contra affair, a Reagan-era scandal that exposed the administration’s illegal arms deal with the Iranian government and intentions to fund the Nicaraguan Contras via related proceeds.
Too bad that the film, through a nearly two-hour running time that begs to be expanded on, bursts at the seams due to this gigantic canvas of global machinations. With a filmmaker-friendly streaming home like Netflix in the picture, you often wonder what would have happened if “The Last Thing He Wanted” had been granted a luxurious running time, à la “The Irishman,” or even better, was shaped into something episodic, giving the story and its characters the ample breathing room they so desperately need.
Which is to say, the lack of oxygen here — amplified by a frantic camera and staccato editing — becomes increasingly frustrating, even with a top-tier ensemble in the driver’s seat. Leading the way is a dedicated Anne Hathaway, delivering a mature and impossibly high-speed performance as the seasoned and idealist D.C. journalist Elena McMahon. We first meet her as she witnesses the aftermath of a massacre in El Salvador, discovering suspicious bullets that could possibly tie the tragedy to the U.S.
Once her paper suspiciously freezes her investigation and assigns her to cover the 1984 presidential election, the pinstripe-and-vest-clad reporter embarks on a journey to connect the dots, alongside her newspaper colleague and long-time friend Alma (Rosie Perez, equally committed). Complicating the picture further is Elena’s hard-drinking, haughtily-mannered father Richard (Willem Dafoe, with his signature devilishness).
Elena resents her dad, who left his family behind back in the day, and who has since been involved in his share of shady dealings. Following the recent death of her mother, however, Elena can’t help but feel a sense of pity and duty for her old man, especially as Richard’s health begins its rapid decline with signs of dementia. Guided by familial loyalty, she agrees to see one of Richard’s uncompleted deals through to the end, a high-stakes, illegal transaction pitched in the midst of the weapons story she was first following with journalistic intentions.
Already jumpy and confusing, the plot takes an even more irreversibly obscure turn at this point. While thugs, political figures, crooked persons and Elena’s innocent young daughter (a dispiriting afterthought of a character, away at a boarding school) compete for the viewer’s attention, nonstop motor-mouth dialogue bombard from all directions. (It’s never a good sign when a film has multiple clumsy hand-holding scenes, in which a character pauses and recalls former scenes in voiceover form, It’s almost like Dee Rees knew how lost the audience would be and packaged some explainer-y remedy to offset the disarray as she went along.) The chaos gets even further multiplied by a resort owner played by Toby Jones (an inexplicable part) and the expressionless, one-note Ben Affleck’s Treat Morrison, a high-ranking official or negotiator of some sort. There’s supposed to be flirtatious sexual chemistry between him and Elena, but Affleck is so oddly removed that it comes as a total shock when they fall to bed, completely out of nowhere.
Peeling away the excess — and there is a lot of it — one can see into Dee Rees’ narrative goals. At the core, “The Last Thing He Wanted” aims to tell a father-daughter story (with mother-daughter strands as well), charged with regret and mortality. But the human dimension that gives the film brief jolts of energy never takes root. Instead, audiences are left grappling with a stuffy maze, albeit one presented with handsome production values and a filmmaker’s striking visual touch. Perhaps there’s a way to shelf this one and just fast-forward to Rees’ next cinematic adventure, while hoping the stumble at least served as good practice in her growth as an artist.