The most interesting thing I could come up with for The Last Thing He Wanted, a movie whose main thing is that it's not interesting in any way, is that I'm pretty sure Anne Hathaway isn't wearing any make-up for most of it. Or at least, she's wearing make-up that's designed to make her look like she's not wearing any. The point being, she looks like an everyday person, sweaty and with bags under her eyes and all, and it's one of those moments where you can't help but realise how much people in movies look like people in movies, even when they're meant to look haggard and beleaguered. Hathaway doesn't like that here. At times, I'd go so far to say that she looks like hell, in fact, and kudos to the film and to the actor for going there, to that place where actors virtually never dare tread. The sheer dirty ordinariness of Hathaway's appearance in the film is central to whatever success the film is able to scrounge up; when it "works", which it does infrequently and not to a terribly high degree, it's because it taps into the feeling of a normal person like you or I (oh, with a much more glamorous job, sure, but she's still a working stiff with a shitty work environment and failing interpersonal relationships and all) who is getting more and more in over her head, and suffering for it. Hathaway wears that suffering on her face; it's easy to feel it with her.

As to why she suffers, I imagine I could explain it, but damned if the film makes that easy. The script has been adapted by Marco Villalobos and director Dee Rees from the 1996 novel by Joan Didion, which I have not read. But it's easy to suppose that the book is better than the movie; if nothing else, I imagine that the voiceover narration comes directly from the prose, where it absolutely should have stayed. Hathaway is powerless to deliver it, and I can't think of the actor who might have been better; it is elaborately literary in a way that English speech simply isn't, and hearing Hathway trying to gnaw her way around it triggers a wave of sympathetic pain.

But that's just one little thing. The whole screenplay is pretty much desolate, a confusing swamp of plot points that don't so much build upon as trip over each other. Briefly, Hathaway plays Elena McMahon, a journalist in 1984 who is desperate to do some good hearty investigative research on the rumored connection between the Nicaraguan Contras and the United States government. Instead, she's forced to cover the Ronald Reagan re-election campaign, a job she apparently holds for about one day before taking a leave to tend to her sick father Dick (Willem Dafoe), a man she barely likes. But there's enough obligation there that when he asks her to take over his arms smuggling ring while he's ailing, she agrees, not least because it gives her exactly the chance to get back to Nicaragua that she's been hunting for.

There are presumably ways of making that massive plot swerve work. The Last Thing He Wanted does not find any of them. Indeed, it more or less goes out of its way to self-sabotage. This is a twisty, labyrinthine plot, with many layers and details - I have not even mentioned shadowy U.S. governmental figure Treat Morrison (Ben Affleck), because I'm not entirely sure why he's there, and I don't think Rees and Villalobos are either - and broadly there are two ways of approaching it that I can think of. First, there is emphasising clarity, possibly at the risk of being redundant, by making sure every scene telegraphs how it fits into the larger whole. Second, there is emphasising the confusion and danger of it, letting us see as the ground falls out from beneath Elena's feet. The Last Thing He Wanted, in practice, does neither of these, though I think it meant to do the second. The problem is that it's far too laconic to make that work: it's a sedate movie, one that underplays everything thanks to some very hushed performances and low lighting, and it never comes close to functioning as a thriller. So the confusion isn't producing a sense of paranoia, but just a sense of, well, confusion.

It's hard to overstate how lousy the story has been put together here. Events take place and there's little sense of how they connect; there are flashbacks (conveniently telegraphed by tinny sound editing) that in theory serve to show Elena figuring out how her father's arms deals fit in with the rest of the dirty dealing going on in Central America, but mostly feel like juxtapositions of two things that don't make sense in isolation, so how could they possibly make sense when jammed together.

But let us not lay all the blame on the script. The way that Rees and company have brought it to life does plenty of damage all by itself, mostly in the editing. Which is odd, because the editor, Mako Kamitsuna, is generally good at her job - she's cut every one of Rees's earlier films, for starters. But then, The Last Thing He Wanted is bad at fundamentals in ways that make me wonder if I'm better off never, ever revisiting Pariah and Mudbound, a pair of films that I have quite admired for doing things well that this movie does poorly. It's exhaustingly overdirected, using fancy camera movements and flashy shallow focus all over the place - it's trying to give some semblance of vitality to the inert story, I'd imagine, but there's no strategy to it. And coupled with the slapdash editing, it can make things as simple as conversation scenes irritating to watch, as we cut from a close-up with a shallow depth of field to a medium shot in normal focus to the close-up but now it's normal focus and then to a medium long shot of the same character who was just in close-up (this is during the scene where Elena is taken off the Nicaragua beat by her editor, and I have perhaps gotten the order of operations wrong, but you get my point: it's a dog's breakfast of competing visual strategies, all just hanging out in miserable isolation).

There are just enough moments where Hathaway gets to demonstrate some human emotion with her dad or her kid that it's not a complete wash (there's not another good performance in the movie, mind you, with Affleck barely waking up, Dafoe practically cackling with demonic glee, and Rosie Perez barking all her lines as Elena's tough journalism buddy). And while cinematographer Bobby Bukowski isn't doing anything a quarter as exciting as what Bradford Young and Rachel Morrison were up to in Pariah and Mudbound, he overlays everything with a sticky yellow cast that goes well with the underlighting to create a sense of fatalistic decay; this is a story about the halls of power that makes them seem like awful places full of awful people based almost entirely on how they look. Not, sadly, because of what happens in them, because that would require clear storytelling and discernible stakes, and these are not things the film has in any quantity. But it does have a risibly terrible final sequence that cross-cuts a slow-motion fall with like four other scenes, turning the film into unbridled kitsch right at the end. So at least the movie has the decency to leave us with a good laugh on the way out.