With a seemingly endless budget, Netflix continues to pour money into project after project with avid disregard for the bottom line.
This strategy may seem counter-intuitive to budget conscious business owners, but for film lovers, the streaming service writing blank checks to everyone from Martin Scorsese to Noah Baumbach to Michael Bay is an overall win.
Some productions may miss the mark financially, but the expansive spending spree has given filmmakers a chance to produce more daring endeavors and creative risks that should make directors better at their craft.
Dee Rees – an African-American writer/director who broke out in 2017 with the Oscar nominated drama “Mudbound” – received a major push from the streaming service for her follow-up feature based on a Joan Didion novel of the same name, “The Last Thing He Wanted,” which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and dropped on Netflix last weekend.
Filled with major star power in Oscar winners Anne Hathaway and Ben Affleck and the promise of an emerging filmmaker, “The Last Thing” has the pizzazz and the cinematic bravado necessary for a taut political thriller, but the film falls flat from the outset with an unnecessarily confusing, lackluster screenplay.
Hathaway stars as an investigative journalist whose pursuit of the story overlaps with a guilt-propelled errand thrust upon her by her unstable father and pushes her into the middle of an international labyrinth of drugs and violence that could prove to be her undoing.
The former Academy Award-winning actress is an apt choice for audiences to follow around for the majority of the film’s two-hour run time, but Hathaway plays the character at such a cautious distance that it’s nearly impossible for viewers to get fully behind her performance enough to maintain interest in the haphazard political intrigue.
Her best moments come in the film’s opening third, which takes advantage of Hathaway’s emotional intensity both verbally and within her eyes. This manifests itself differently as her character investigates potential war crimes in Latin America versus personal crisis with her father as well as her daughter at boarding school.
Hathaway is well matched with veteran character actor Willem Dafoe, an alert and present performer willing to take risks as Hathaway’s estranged father slowly deteriorating mentally. Their scenes are dynamic and resonate with audiences long after Dafoe leaves the screen, a rarity in Rees’ film.
Although Dafoe does venture over into the realm of caricature at times, his performance still carries large segments of “The Last Thing” with a bright, engaging turn that breathes life into the sails of the narrative.
The weakest link in the film is Affleck’s stiff, dry turn as a political instigator from Washington with questionable motivations. If the description of the character feels vague, it’s likely because Affleck doesn’t bring much to the performance beyond a simple, almost clinical recitation of dialogue from Rees’ screenplay and it doesn’t hold up comparatively to his recent work in another Netflix original film, J.C. Chandor’s 2019 feature “Triple Frontier.”
As is to be expected with a high-budget political thriller, “The Last Thing” rounds out its considerable supporting cast with a cavalcade of moderately familiar faces that provide depth and richness to a world that far exceeds its middling story, including exceptional turns from Rosie Perez as Hathaway’s investigative partner and Edi Gathegi as a rival gun runner.
The adaptation of Didion’s novel is problematic and messy, from the lingering and verbose prose narration that gives context to the mental state of Hathaway’s character to the ping-pong storyline jumping to the muddling of a relatively straightforward narrative.
This feels more a fault of Rees as screenwriter – a credit she shares with Marco Villalobos – than as a director as her visual storytelling is sometimes engaging and always interesting with strong cinematography from Bobby Bukowski.
For a variety of reasons, “The Last Thing He Wanted” doesn’t really pull together as a compelling narrative but the shades of a taut political thriller can be seen in the shadows.
Ultimately, this makes Netflix’s spending to give Rees a chance to grow as a filmmaker worth their investment and “The Last Thing He Wanted” is a perfect movie for audiences interested in the genre to take a low-risk chance on.