I had no plan on doing this to be honest. Not seeing the movie, I had my mind set on seeing this in the one theater in LA that’s playing it ever since I heard the…well, let’s just say interesting response that the movie has gotten since its premier at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2016. But I was only going for my own amusement. I didn’t think I would sit down and actually write about it, especially since the likelihood of anyone sitting down and watching this – despite it now being available on VOD – is practically zilch.
However, I need to vent. If anything, for my own sanity.
The film I’m talking about is The Last Face, written by Erin Dignam and directed by Sean Penn. It follows a physician and activist, Wren Peterson (Charlize Theron), who struggles with stepping out of the shadow of her deceased father who started the organization she works for, as well as her shaky relationship with a co-worker, Miguel Leon (Javier Bardem).
Oh, and all this relationship melodrama is happening against the backdrop of rampant violence, poverty, and disease in West Africa.
Simply put, I’m amazed that this movie exists. Especially considering it’s coming from people who you’d expect to know better. It is utterly insane in its construction and choice in focus. It’s a film where the struggles of African characters are never given humanity, they’re always in the background, and the film uses them simply to evoke pity from the audience and make our main characters feel bad. I could count the number of African characters who have speaking parts in my two hands, and even then, they are often limited to one or two lines. However, the number of cutaways to nameless crying African children are through the damn roof.
It’s so bafflingly miscalculated, it took every ounce of self-control I had to not burst out laughing at the horrendous choices they made here. Because not only is it hilariously misguided from a story perspective, but even as a piece of filmmaking, it is astonishingly inept and headbangingly pompous. Penn’s attempt at visual and stylistic flourishes do nothing to the film except make it look like some kind of sleek, tone deaf commercial (probably brought to you by the same guys who thought that infamous Pepsi ad was a good idea). By the fifteen minute mark, I was already wanting to pull my hair out because I was so sick of constantly seeing shots where everything on frame but the character is out of focus (BECAUSE THEY FEEL DISCONNECTED FROM THE WORLD AROUND THEM, YOU SEE). Then there’s the gratuitous use of slow motion, pointless voice over, the overly dramatic music, and delirious dialogue that wouldn’t even be worthy of a dollar store motivational poster. Practically every aspect of the filmmaking at display feels so amateur, so desperate for an emotional reaction, and so obnoxiously up its own ass, that had I not known about who was involved going in, I would’ve been shocked to find out that this was directed by someone who has already made five films, which even at their worst were reasonably well received. This isn’t the kind the kind of bad movie where you can see a good filmmaker trying to achieve a specific vision, regardless of whether it works or not. The Last Face is the kind of empty nonsense you’d expect from someone fresh out of film school, and not even one of the good ones.
Let me just give you a taste as to the kind of silly bullshit this movies tries to pull off.
There is a scene where Charlize and Javier’s characters are flirting with each other by brushing their teeth in front of one another. It’s meant to be a cute callback to a comment he made in a previous scene, but it’s so profoundly awkward, and it goes on foooooreeeeeeeveeeeer.
Another scene reveals that Javier’s character was previously in a relationship with the cousin of Charlize’s character, who is played by Adèle Exarchopoulos. We only saw her once long before this reveal happens, and when she finally comes back and finds out about Charlize and Javier hooking up, she makes a big deal about their past to makes him look like an asshole. However, she follows up this rant with what is basically, “oh, by the way, I tested positive for HIV,” and then we never see her again for the rest of the film.
There’s a scene where one of the aid workers is dancing with a (nameless) African woman by a campfire while Javier is having a drink. He finishes dancing and sits next to Javier, and tells him, “you see that girl there? She saw her sister get raped to death, and then she was raped. She was ripped ass to vagina, and yet…here she dances.”
Oh, and there’s a sex scene initially set to a Hans Zimmer cover Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ “Otherside” before transitioning to the original song. OK, that’s probably not an inherently bad thing, I just really don’t like the band.
The level of audacity in its own self-importance is matched by the sheer incompetency to actually deliver something cohesive and engaging. The actors are certainly giving earnest performances, but there is really nothing there at all to work with. The characters are flat, dull, and very uninteresting; only used as a vessel to explore more horrific African imagery. If it weren’t for the the couple sitting in front of me, I’d have probably lost my breath from all the laughing and screams of “WTF?!?!”. This might be one of the most entertaining and hilarious trainwrecks I’ve had the privilege of experiencing in a long time. It is truly something to behold.
At least, until it isn’t.
As much as I would very much like to recommend seeing this for the insanity of its very existence, I find it hard to do so. At the end of the day, you can only have so much fun with a film like this before the subject matter begins to get a little too ugly. The level of violence inflicted upon the African people (who I would like to remind you never get to be full-fledged characters in their own right) reaches a level that was simply disgusting and deeply troubling. This is mainly in the third act, where we see more children being killed in extremely gruesome ways; the kind of gruesome that would feel like too much even for a Mel Gibson film. It sucks out all the fun, and it only made me angry at Penn and everyone else involved.
If you want to tell a story about the struggles of people in Africa, there are ways to go about it that don’t involve sidelining black characters, killing for shock value, and repeatedly hovering the camera over images of poverty and dead children the same way Michael Bay would have the camera ogle women’s bodies. That Penn and Dignam never allows us to know any of the African characters before ruthlessly killing them, never properly expressing the nuances regarding the problems plaguing West Africa without resorting to the same tropes and images we’ve seen before, never even giving a black character so much as a voice to provide some authenticity to the story, and instead favoring the romance between Javier and Charlize’s characters for most of the screen time, isn’t just misguided, it is downright vile and repugnant, regardless of how “well meaning” it is.
Trust me, even though I’ve given so much away, reading about what happens in The Last Face is a far different experience than actually seeing it. Just thinking about certain moments still make me laugh out loud, but I can’t actively recommend it because of the ugliness that comes, so you should just decide for yourself. If you’re sensitive to witnessing exploitative brutality on black bodies (which I’ve seen some reactions to in regard to the film, Detroit), then you should definitely steer clear from this. For everyone else, the film is currently available on VOD, the rest is up to you. It likely won’t end up as one of the legendarily bad movies that gets midnight showings with huge crowds like The Room, but it certainly is just as bad in its own strange way. The Last Face is not only the worst film of 2017 by far, it’s a strong contender for one of the worst films of the 21st century so far. But please, by all means, keep going on about how some animated film about emojis are the end of Western civilization as we know it.
By the way, I’m still unsure as to why it’s called The Last Face.