I stand (mostly) alone here saying I enjoyed Dee Rees’ latest Netflix-distributed film, The Last Thing She Wanted, an adaptation of a Joan Didion novel, starring Anne Hathaway as Elena, a hard-nosed veteran D.C. reporter who takes over her absentee father’s (an always excellent Willem Dafoe) role in an international arms deal. In fact, it’s much better than Rees’ last film, the rote Mudbound, which was ultimately praised for its competent conventionality.
Mainstream critics’ confusion over the plot of The Last Thing He Wanted reminds me of when many of them thought Inception was too complex (actually, that film, to my great disappointment, spent much of its runtime explaining itself). Rees’ film has been extraordinarily panned because it does not naturally hew to the mainstream thriller genre, nor is it interested in teasing out the finer points of its heady, fast-moving plot like recent over-adored explainers such as The Big Short. Instead, the film is interested in how all kinds of people, at a particular political and cultural moment in the U.S., often found themselves in such charged, bewildering circumstances, both as a matter of national affairs and their own personal ambition. Visually, it’s a film as interested in ’70s aesthetics as it is in the psyches that charged them, though it’s set in the ’80s, when ’70s counterculture was fading out into a kind of American proto-fascism. Rosie Perez’s cool yet knowing photo-journalist exudes the visual and narrative ambivalence of the film, where the bohemian sensibility finds itself in sleek, pressure-filled environments.
Rees’ approach as director and co-writer, which has led directly to the film’s largely negative reception, is very Didion-esque—if you actually have read her, you’ll know that Didion didn’t pace her stories and reports like Tana French novels; her aims have always been much grander, and mysterious. If you do, in fact, read difficult books and watch difficult films with curiosity rather than impatience, you’ll know that—like, say, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice adaptation and Thomas Pynchon’s other novels—there can indeed be worlds inside other worlds, substance that cannot be deciphered according to a linear logic or a cultural amnesia that praises common-denominator legibility over genuine inspiration. And I believe there are audiences who are much more willing to engage in a difficult, strange story than many critics will give them credit for. I’m certain there will be “ordinary” people who read widely, sometimes watch movies made before 1980, and will be glad they saw this film.
I hope Rees does not become discouraged over the mainstream resistance to her riskiest attempt. The Last Thing He Wanted is the first time I’ve seen her take a real swing at something epic in its emotional and historical proportions, and it’s common for women directors to have their ambition for both form and content misread and scorned. Elaine May, whose great film Ishtar was originally panned, knows this—as does Karyn Kusama, Catherine Hardwicke, Kasi Lemmons, post-The-Piano Jane Campion, Lynne Ramsey, Julie Dash, Claudia Weil, Barbara Loden (in the ’70s; now her belated classic, Wanda, is nearly universally praised), and many more. Hell, even male directors are often on the receiving end of unimaginative and obtuse critical readings—though their careers tend to go on anyway.
I’m not saying The Last Thing He Wanted is a great film, but it’s a good one, and a smart stab at Didion, who is not only an elusive figure, but writer—something that’s often missed with her clear and forthright prose style. Rees fails at times to toggle both the mystery and clarity of the novel, but in the process injects her own passion for a story about female ambition that, in its ideas, avoids cliché. In the midst of imperialist, masculine dealings of 1980s American foreign policy, Hathaway’s Elena is a divorcée, long-distance single mother, neglected daughter, as well as a traumatized, hard-working professional. And she certainly doesn’t have it all—in fact, the film is mainly about the lengths she’ll go to to hold onto her last connection with a world that expands beyond her individualized torment: Her family, her father.
The Last Thing He Wanted is the rare wintertime Netflix release that’s much worthier of praise and attention than many of the pedestrian films I see lauded every other week during the pre-Oscar season. My advice for viewers: Don’t be afraid to get lost in the details of this one. After all, it’s streaming—like a good book, you can pick it up again and again.