The Last Thing He Wanted

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
The Last Thing He Wanted Movie Poster Image
Messy book-based political thriller has mature content.
  • R
  • 2020
  • 115 minutes

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Kids say

age 16+
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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Trust no one. The government does secret illegal things.


Positive Role Models & Representations

Elena seems at first brave, dedicated, and professional, then foolish, selfish, and finally untethered. Others are cynical political operatives who seem to have no moral compass.


Charred bodies are seen briefly. Many are shot poolside at a hotel as patrons drop or flee. Blood is seen. A person is shot from a close distance in the heart. A man who's been shot in the head is seen slumped at his desk.


A man and woman are seen in bed post-sex, with bare chests. The woman is a breast cancer survivor with only one breast and a scar shown in the dim light.



"F--k," "s--t," "bitch," "ass," "f--got," "queer," and "damn."



Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Cocaine pays for illegally provided arms. Adults smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Last Thing He Wanted is a 2020 thriller based on Joan Didion's 1996 novel of the same name. The subject is the scandalous uncovering of illegal arms deals of the 1980s covertly funded and arranged, through the sale of cocaine, by the U.S. government to deliver weaponry to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government. Bodies left behind after a massacre are shown. People are shot at and murdered. Charred bodies are seen briefly. Adults drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. In a dim room, a couple is seen in bed after sex, topless, showing the woman's breast and mastectomy scar. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," "bitch," "ass," "f--got," "queer," and "damn."



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What's the story?

THE LAST THING HE WANTED derives from Joan Didion's 1996 novel about plotting and covert arms deals undertaken by the U.S. government using taxpayer money to send weapons to Contras battling the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Hard-bitten American journalist Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway) relentlessly covers the carnage in Central America, and like many war correspondents, can't forget the innocent dead she's seen when she returns to the States. It seems as if the government, run by Ronald Reagan seeking a second term, his military and intelligence agencies, and numerous private persons, used cocaine sale profits to smuggle arms to the Contras to bring down an inconvenient violent government. Her paper stops covering the war, but the implications are nefarious. Her father, Dick (Willem Dafoe), who left her 20 years before, shows up with memory loss and asks her to step in for him in an arms deal in Nicaragua. Cloak and dagger ensues. No one is who he or she appears to be. Elena gets stuck in Costa Rica, laying low as a hotel maid, waiting to be rescued by the American government. She has sex with a congressional adviser, or maybe a CIA agent (Ben Affleck). A funeral, a divorce, an unhappy adolescent daughter, and a bout with breast cancer are all thrown in.   

Is it any good?

A surprisingly messy offering from the talented director of Mudbound, Dee Rees, this movie fails in almost every way possible. It wouldn't be an overstatement to call The Last Thing He Wanted a disaster in terms of comprehensibility, narrative drive, dramatic arc, and the simple cinematic goal of taking an audience from point A to point B in a coherent and artful way. Given Rees' demonstrated talent, one is left to wonder what factors could've led to such a disjointed result.

Engagement with the material hinges on audience understanding of a few key elements that the script ignores, including what was going on in Nicaragua in the 1980s. A few words could have illuminated the supposed American plot to stop a feared spread of Communism throughout the region. In what feels as abrupt as a jump cut, we move from a scene in which two people who barely know each other are talking, to a scene in which they are in bed together post-sex, making references to another person we've never heard of, as if we should know who that person is. Worst of all, it's impossible for actors to convincingly play characters whose motives keep changing, if they have any in the first place. Things are suddenly revealed, but we're never clear on what those new revelations mean. At film's close, the theme song from an early '60s TV show about a hired gun plays. In all, this movie feels like someone dropped an explosive in the editing room and Rees and company had to clean up as best they could.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Elena's choices. She seems to be an honest person. Do you think it makes sense for her to agree to complete an illegal deal just because her incapacitated father asks her to? Why or why not?

  • How does The Last Thing He Wanted compare to other political thrillers you've seen?

  • Have you read the book that inspired this movie? If not, are you interested in reading it now?

Movie details

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For kids who love thrills

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