For Elena McMahon, things start simple enough: after years’ hard work reporting global humanitarian atrocities, her paper reshuffles and she is demoted to following the US campaign trail. Her new subject: Reagan-Bush ’84. Her real interest: Contra. There’ll be conspiracy and cover-ups, clearly, and we can feel the political-thriller beats start to pulse.

Joan Didion’s terse novel, The Last Thing He Wanted, is here adapted by writer-director Dee Rees and co-writer Marco Villalobos in a screenplay that often forgets to fill in logical gaps. There are few twists per se, but it is surprising to follow McMahon – played very well by Anne Hathaway – jump from one type of thriller to another, as it turns out her itinerant father (Dafoe) has been involved in the US’s “surplus” gun-running. By the second half this is no longer a journalist film; McMahon, having absconded to follow the breadcrumbs, is fully in American Made territory with little hope of return.

The shift has a certain lyrical logic to it that has not adequately translated to screen. Rees’ film, her biggest yet, displays her usual fascination with observing subjectivity, and the way she shoots Hathaway and the surrounding world is gorgeous (DP Bobby Bukowski takes over from Mudbound’s Rachel Morrison admirably). But individual plot points are under-explained, while the overarching structure fatally never commits to either of two ideas: are we following the careful collecting of complex information, as in a reporter movie, or its total breakdown, as in the paranoiac post-Pynchon mode? You’d think this question would suggest Rees’ success in the latter, but no: by the end, we’re asked improbably to buy that the conspiracy was real and legible.

With its strong performances, pacing and imagery, The Last Thing He Wanted is one (fairly hefty) script revision away from theoretical year-best territory. Instead it missteps, with increasing frailty.



CAST: Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, Rosie Perez, Edi Gathegi, Toby Jones, Willem Dafoe


WRITERS: Dee Rees, Marco Villalobos (screenplay), Joan Didion (novel)

SYNOPSIS: A veteran D.C. journalist (Hathaway) loses the thread of her own story when an errand for her dying father (Dafoe) turns her from author to unwitting subject in the story she’s trying to break.