Wasting talent is one thing, but associating all of that with something nearly half as unforgivable as The Last Face is a whole other level. Sean Penn’s first directorial effort after Into the Wild has found the actor-director sinking himself down to a new low, maybe even the lowest that he’s hit in his entire career. And somehow, the word “exploitative” isn’t even enough to describe what’s wrong with The Last Face on just about every level because even an element that would make itself to appear as slightly redeeming irrelevant when discussing the product as a whole. It’s been a long while since I’ve come across something of such a rare sort of ugliness on a screen of any sort – and I’ll be amazed if I find anything else of this kind come out within this year. Penn is clearly a wonderfully talented actor and maybe his directing isn’t on the same level, but this sort of thing is just baffling for someone of his own kind.
The whole concept of this film already at its best feels extremely exploitative; it sets up what we see as a romance between Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem but quickly cuts to what we see as poverty in Africa. Charlize Theron’s character is Wren, a physician and activist for Doctors of the World, together with her cousin Ellen. Javier Bardem plays Miguel, a surgeon whose life is dedicated to helping out the poor – but after an affair starts between the two there comes news that Miguel has been in a relationship with Ellen, Wren’s cousin, their own romance is put in jeopardy. This is the center of The Last Face, and in the background we have a story that is set in a poverty-stricken Africa – from reading this alone a bitter taste was left in my mouth. I was only wondering how much more could Sean Penn just use something happening in actuality as a mere backdrop for what he holds at the center, because somehow it only spiraled down even further as it went on.
It caught me out of nowhere just how grossly condescending this film was, because it seems to take comfort inside of its own setting to make the story at its center feel all the more important about its own self. This approach just left such a bad taste in my mouth because it seemed to exploit the fact that poverty was taking place inside of its setting in order to highlight the tragedy of its central romance. It feels almost insulting the way Penn is presenting it in The Last Face, because he knows that he’s putting down an actual tragedy in order to highlight what it’s really about – the most that comes for the next few hours almost feels like he’s showing his audiences that people of higher class are far better than those who are experiencing the harshness of poverty by living a romantic fantasy. That’s the most that Penn even makes of their lives, just a romantic melodrama that happens to be set amidst poverty in Africa to the sheer point of sidelining it.
And the worst part about said aspect is that even as a romance or a melodrama, it fails even to be convincing in any way. It’s possible that it was the blame of the poor screenplay but the way Penn directs his own actors to play romantic partners with one another not only feels awkward, but the tensions feel implausible because of how quickly they come and go. There’s not a single moment between Bardem and Theron that ever feels convincing in the slightest and exchanges of dialogue already feel so much weirder because there’s an extent to where they almost feel comical. But even if they did come off as comical in another context, the fact that Penn has placed all of them within the backdrop of his own choice in The Last Face is where something all the more insulting has come about; and it’s almost not even worth laughing at anymore because there’s clear evidence of poor taste all around here.
If that weren’t enough, it’s clear there’s a religious perspective being placed into The Last Face – something which feels hammered into the film given the numerous times it’s repeated. Soon I was left questioning what sort of film it was that Penn even wanted The Last Face to be, but at that point there was not even a single thing about it that I cared in the slightest bit about because I was just watching the whole thing in anger. I was watching the whole thing feeling nothing but a great sense of anger at how Penn is trying to make his own film feel so much more important about itself by ramming so much all at once, whether it be from the film’s subject matter or the backdrop where it’s set. But from poor handling of the cinematography, even aspects that could slightly appear decent don’t even offer anything on the film’s behalf. It just amounts to absolutely nothing worthwhile in the end.
Penn seems to be so confused about what he wants The Last Face to be to the point he lazily stitches as much as possible on the spot, and somehow these results only come out in such poor taste. And what came by only presented such a great sense of bitterness all around even a slightly redeeming factor ultimately means nothing. Talent is wasted on every count in The Last Face, as Sean Penn finds himself a new career low. Nothing about The Last Face even finds itself feeling real or natural. Nothing about The Last Face is worth the time. Nothing about The Last Face even feels redeeming by a slight bit, no matter what the promise may sound like. The most that has ever come out from watching The Last Face is that it is truly a film that fits the dictionary definition of “hateful.” I don’t want to be just another person that adds onto the dogpile, but with something like The Last Face, it’s the only possible solution.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Lionsgate.
Directed by Sean Penn
Screenplay by Erin Dignam
Produced by Bill Gerber, Matt Palmieri, Bill Pohlad
Starring Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Jean Reno
Release Year: 2016
Running Time: 132 minutes