Overview: Physicians work together in West Africa with a relief organization. FilmHaven Entertainment/Gerber Pictures/Matt Palmieri Productions/River Road Entertainment; 2016; 132 Minutes.
Utter Failure: The Last Face is not a film built to do well at Cannes, but it’s not really a film that will do well anywhere. Director Sean Penn attempts to channel his inner Malick and is only able to conjure up a slick, insipid parody. Several of Penn’s attempts at pathos are unbearable or laughable. For this project to have been approved, at some point there must have been a version of this film that does the bloodshed in Africa justice – at some point this movie had to have its heart in the right place – but this film is not that version.
The film’s subjects are a group of European doctors, part of an NGO stationed in Africa who discover that helping the country is hard. And, the film would suggest, maybe pointless. The two leads, Doctors Wren and Miguel, are played by the hollow shells of Javier Bardem and Charlize Theron. The two spend their time in between playing God (their vapidly self-applied distinction, not critical conjecture), having sex, and indulging one of the more frustrated romances in recent cinema. The supporting cast is just as equally star-studded. Jean Reno plays Dr. Love, who occasionally interjects with maxims that don’t really mean anything. Adele Exarchopoulos, whose work in Blue is The Warmest Color (along with that of Lea Seydoux) inspired the historic decision of both director Abdellatif Kechiche and actres being awarded the Palme D’or in 2013, portrays Wren’s cousin who exists solely to add a terrible dramatic twist. Jared Harris plays a Christian who does nothing but invoke the word of God in empty terms.
Insulting and Inhumane: There is a story there, but The Last Face never really follows it. Instead it forces entirely pointless montages that do nothing but make the film and its disjointed chronology more confusing. Cinematic missteps become especially unforgivable in their assignment to a very serious core issue. Rather than allow the film to pursue real commentary or instructional awareness and insight into the topic, Penn uses it as an excuse to host screen violence. Everything is brutal, violent, and completely unearned, presented with the subtlety of the Call of Duty game series.
There is a clear-cut formula present in the film’s attempted manipulation. First, cut to a close up shot of Theron reacting, most commonly her eyes swelling with tears. Then hold for a dissatisfying amount of time, long enough for the audience to get bored out of any sense of anticipation, before finally panning out and revealing another act of violence. The mechanics run like clockwork, shifting between the shawdy violent discoveries and hokey attempts at tender romance. The crisis is exploited so thoroughly that when nothing remains but valueless images of stringed intestines and piles of dead bodies, the effect is (or at least should be) infuriating for the audience.
If there are good aspects within this film, they are smothered by clumsy amateur hands. The attractiveness of the visuals mean nothing, and a solid score, which jumps between Red Hot Chili Peppers and Hans Zimmer (at one point becoming both), is wasted by predictable cues. Being applied to a story so empty reduces the supportive elements to sap fodder.
Overall: The Last Face is not just vile cinema, it’s harmful cinema.