The Last Face

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
The Last Face Movie Poster Image
Violent wartime drama is inept, pretentious, and brutal.
  • R
  • 2017
  • 131 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Though the movie is about humanitarians, they aren't painted in the most flattering light. Service is seen as more self-serving and patronizing than helpful. And the decision to tell a story of an African culture's struggles through the eyes of privileged white/western characters is outdated at best and insulting at worst. But the movie could raise viewers' interest in learning about real-life conflicts in Liberia and Cape Town.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Though the characters are trying to help by providing medical services to war victims in Liberia, they come across as self-centered and shallow. Their reasons for helping are obscured.


Brief but extremely disturbing images of people being operated upon, with blood spurts. Gruesome pile of dead bodies covered with flies. Bloody intestines. A young boy shoots himself in the head, with a large blood spray and gurgling blood. Military attacks, with guns, shooting, and deaths, including women and children. Verbal description of brutal rape. Slapping.


A couple has sex; the scene includes brief nudity (glimpse of a naked bottom and a woman's nipple). Mentions of affairs/multiple lovers.


Uses of "f--k" and "s--t," plus "anus," "vagina."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Brief reference to smoking pot. Wine with dinner.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Last Face is a mature romantic drama about humanitarian doctors set in wartime Africa. Expect brief but disturbing scenes of operating room gore, bloody body parts, and dead bodies. There are also scenes of guns and shooting, with many people killed, including women and children. In one scene, a boy shoots himself in the head -- complete with a gruesome blood spray -- to save his father. Brutal rape is described, and language is strong, with several uses of "f--k" and "s--t." The main characters have sex, with a little nudity (bottom, nipple). There's a a brief reference to smoking pot, and characters have wine with dinner. Though the filmmakers seem to have had good intentions, the movie is difficult to watch and frustratingly misguided; it tells the story of an African culture's struggles through the eyes of privileged white/western characters, which is outdated at best and insulting at worst. Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem star; Sean Penn directs.

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What's the story?

In THE LAST FACE, Wren Petersen (Charlize Theron) has taken over her father's organization, Doctors of the World. In 2003, she goes to Liberia to help during the country's wartime devastation. She meets handsome surgeon Miguel Leon (Javier Bardem), and, after successfully delivering a woman's baby, they begin an affair. Their relationship is complicated not only by their different approaches to what they do -- Miguel refuses to get too personally involved in his work -- and by Wren's concern that Miguel is a "player." Her fears are confirmed when one of his former lovers (Adele Exarchopoulos) comes forward to say that she's HIV-positive. Eventually Wren and Miguel part, but they find themselves together again, in Cape Town, years later. Can they rekindle their spark?

Is it any good?

This romantic war drama -- Sean Penn's fifth feature film as director -- is an all-around dud. It's poorly shot and edited, crushingly heavy-handed, woefully misguided, and, to top it off, miserably long. Penn is talented, but with The Last Face he seems to have let his humanitarian beliefs get in the way of his artistic instincts. He sheds light on terrible atrocities but does so in a melodramatic, hysterical way that undermines them. He also bafflingly uses the old "white savior" technique -- that is, telling the story of a culture's struggles through the eyes of privileged white/western characters, which is outdated at best and insulting at worst.

And as if all that weren't enough, Penn aggravatingly favors wobbly, shaky camera work, restlessly roaming and wandering as if terribly bored. He also frequently uses a "rolling focus" technique, which leaves important bits of the frame out of focus. Not even Oscar winners Theron and Bardem can save the day; their shallow characters are little more than placeholders. And talented supporting cast members Exarchopoulos, Jean Reno, and Jared Harris barely register at all. Avoid this and seek enlightenment elsewhere.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about The Last Face's violence. How intense/gruesome is it? How does the movie use violence to make its point(s)? Do you think all of it is necessary to the story? What's the impact of media violence on kids?

  • How is humanitarian aid portrayed in the movie? Does it look appealing? Rewarding? Dangerous? Does this movie make you want to learn more about it?

  • How does the movie portray sex? How does it fit into the main characters' relationship? Parents, talk to your teens about your own values regarding sex and relationships.

  • What does the movie have to say about war and violence in Africa? Is there anything that people can do about it in real life?

  • Have you ever heard the term "white savior" applied to movie plots/characters? What does it mean? How is the term relevant here? 

Movie details

  • In theaters: July 28, 2017
  • On DVD or streaming: September 5, 2017
  • Cast: Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem, Adele Exarchopoulos
  • Director: Sean Penn
  • Studio: Saban Films
  • Genre: Drama
  • Run time: 131 minutes
  • MPAA rating: R
  • MPAA explanation: strong bloody violence including disturbing images of war atrocities, language, and brief sexuality
  • Last updated: November 3, 2020

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