THE LAST FACE
Director: Sean Penn
Cast: Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem, Jared Harris, Jean Reno, Oscar Best, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Denise Newman, Zubin Cooper, Sebelethu Bonkolo
MPAA Rating: (for strong bloody violence including disturbing images of war atrocities, language, and brief sexuality)
Running Time: 2:10
Release Date: 7/28/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 27, 2017
The Last Face takes on the right cause. The movie simply does so with the wrong story and the wrong characters entirely.
It begins with a map overlaid with some text, saying that there's a connection between the Second Liberian Civil War, which ended in 2003, and the South Sudanese Civil War, which began 10 years later and is ongoing. Lest we think the screenplay by Erin Dignam might offer any political context to either of these conflicts, the text continues that the connection is the romantic relationship of between a man and a woman. Lest we think the movie might have any interest in the local people who have suffered through those conflicts, it reveals that the man is a European—a Spaniard—and the woman is of European descent—an Afrikaner. Almost immediately, the movie announces that it has really nothing to do with either Liberia, South Sudan, or the people of those countries. It doesn't waver from that lack of concern.
The woman is Wren (Charlize Theron), who now works for the UN's Human Rights Council, preparing to give a speech about what's happening in South Sudan. The man is Miguel (Javier Bardem), who works for a humanitarian NGO that provides medical care to people in war-torn areas. The movie begins with the two of them in a hotel room, before flashing back to how they reunited in Europe. From there, it constantly flashes back from the reunion to how the two first met and fell in love in Liberia, while working to treat the victims of the conflict.
If this sounds like a bad idea for a story about this particular subject, it is. There's a vast disconnect between the story of the war and the story of the lovers. The movie's focus is narrow—and not just in terms of the story. There are multiple shots of Wren and Miguel, having left Africa for Europe, in which each of them is the only thing in focus within the frame. The rest of the world is a blur.
Director Sean Penn clearly wants to communicate that they are no longer part of this life of comfort and ambivalence. Their experiences have changed them so much that nothing seems real. This is a good thought, as well as a succinct way of communicating the idea. For the inordinate amount of effort that goes into making these two characters the most important people in any place that they're in, that technique might as well be used in the scenes in Liberia, too. Their drama is always in the forefront, no matter what horrors may be going on around, behind and in front of them.
The movie offers little context to the war in Liberia—the causes, the reason the fighting continues, who's fighting whom (For comparison, it offers nothing about the conflict in South Sudan). The only details that it does offer include the fact that there are rebels, who have started to "recruit" child soldiers, and plenty of carnage. All of the violence is anonymous—masses of people being gunned down in the streets, mutilated bodies lining the roads and lying among the ruins of villages, children holding automatic rifles and wearing masks. These background characters exist in two forms: perpetrators of violence and its victims. They do not have a voice, except to scream in terror, to howl in pain or rage, or, in one case, to ask to die on the operating table.
Dignam's screenplay doesn't illuminate anything else about these people, despite the movie's big, closing speech being on the subject of seeing refugees as ordinary people, who happen to find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. Penn's camera doesn't find compassion or even basic sympathy in its lingering shots of anguished faces and devastated bodies. They're here to elicit a response of disgust for the ravages of a conflict that the movie itself doesn't even bother to explain.
If the final speech is any indication, this is supposed to be, in part, a work of activism. There's nothing wrong with that, especially in terms of a subject as vital and ongoing as the way the world treats its refugees. Dignam and Penn haven't made that movie, though. This is just a tragic love story, playing out as some actual tragedy unfolds in the backdrop. The Last Face ends with the faces of the two lovers, separated but united within the frame. There are a pair of brief flashes of the face of a young girl whom Miguel couldn't save. It is, accidentally, a perfect summary of the movie's misplaced intentions: These two could be happy together, if it weren't for those pesky wars.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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