There are a few moments, reading Joan Didion’s 1996 novel, The Last Thing He Wanted, when it’s possible to sense why someone saw cinematic potential in this exceptionally interior and evasive story. This is a tale about gunrunning in tropical climes, about beachside murders and political corruption. But its author also wants to deconstruct the prototypical elements of storytelling, such as character, description, and plot. This world is so destabilized that language itself has become untrustworthy, and even the simplest of facts cannot stand. There’s no single truth to rely on. The story is narrated by a magazine writer who may or may not be Didion herself, and who’s parsing how a female reporter got swept up in an arms-dealing scandal in 1984. While the story is fictional, the book is deeply attentive to real government duplicity during the Reagan era, in which “even the most apparently straightforward piece of information could at any time explode.”
Dee Rees’s adaptation of The Last Thing He Wanted debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival to baffled reviews, and has inspired similar confusion since it arrived on Netflix last Friday. The movie is, Stephanie Zacharek wrote for Time, “such an ambitious piece of work that it’s hard to know where to start with it.” In The New York Times, Glenn Kenny concluded that “the big problem with the movie isn’t the muddle, but the strain” of Rees’s attempts to make things make sense. “How does a director as stellar as Dee Rees (Mudbound, Pariah) go so thunderously wrong adapting a 1996 novel by the great Joan Didion, with a cast headed by Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, and Willem Dafoe?” Peter Travers asked in his Rolling Stone review, perhaps unwittingly answering his own question. Didion’s prestige as a writer is such that virtually anyone would want to attach themselves to a project with her name on it. But there’s also a good reason only one of her novels has previously been turned into a film or television project: Her work, this movie suggests, is unadaptable.