Film Review: The Last Face

Sean Penn’s 'The Last Face' subsumes its lightweight romance in mystery, war and misery.
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Even covered in blood, sweat and grime throughout the nebulous drama The Last Face, Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem retain their movie-star sheen playing two relief workers who meet in war-torn Monrovia. Wren Petersen (Theron), project coordinator for an international relief organization, and Dr. Miguel Leon (Bardem), a physician with Doctors Without Borders, spar and flirt while tending to wounded civilians and saving their share of lives. But the Oscar-winning actors can’t save this movie, which muddles through a dismayingly impressionistic first half-hour, before settling into a standard star-crossed romance between Wren and Miguel.

Director Sean Penn, working from a script by frequent collaborator Erin Dignam (Loved), sets up an ambitiously multi-layered narrative that follows present-day Wren, many years removed from her fraught relationship with Miguel. Gradually, flashbacks to the violent clashes in Monrovia, and the couple’s time spent overseeing a clinic under fire in South Sudan, elucidate how their partnership evolved, then collapsed. In the process, the film somehow conflates Wren and Miguel’s experiences during the Liberian Civil War and a conflict in South Sudan with “the brutality of love.”

Starkly clear when training a lens on the grisly job of operating on maimed, mutilated war casualties, The Last Face can be self-consciously inscrutable dealing with its characters. Penn boldly traffics in sand art and mystery, slow-yielding superimpositions and voiceover narration from Wren obliquely referencing her lifelong adoration of her father. Like Miguel, her doctor dad hopscotched around to some of the world’s most dangerous places trying to do some good. Her life has been about following in his footsteps. Will she now follow Miguel? “Before Miguel… I didn’t really exist,” she intones.

Wren’s journey towards existence doesn’t take shape until well after Penn has established the authentic gloom and terror of trying to live, work or heal in a war zone. Quiet conversations constantly are interrupted by mortar explosions or the terrified wails of women and children, while guerrillas ride in to destroy vital equipment and murder all in their path. The realistic blood and gore—seemingly heaped on to evoke visceral, you-are-there urgency—feels gratuitous. Shots focused on shredded limbs and gaping wounds often edge characters’ faces out of frame; emotion and intention are sidelined for shock value. And some scenes are indeed shocking, including an emergency C-section, performed in the dark of night somewhere deep in the jungle.

The editing and photography keep all this chaos immediate, but at the cost of nailing down a prevailing point of view. For a while, the fly-on-the-wall approach prevents a strong identification with any one character. Relief doctors portrayed by Jared Harris and Jean Reno appear in the background but barely utter lines, exhibiting surprisingly little personality or characterization until late in the film, considering the talents involved.

Rather than adding colorful dimension to the doctors and civilians who aren’t Wren or Miguel, the film draws out the romantic suspense surrounding the lovers coming together, then the anti-climactic dramatic reveal of what drove them apart. For enigmatic effect, Theron and Bardem play many of their intimate scenes in darkness and shadow, or separated by gauze and beads. As the storyline leaps woozily from present-day South Africa to South Sudan, then back to 2003 Liberia, the film reveals its big picture: the Samaritan’s dilemma. Aid workers like Miguel and Wren feel compelled to do something to ease the unfathomable human suffering in the world, but feel run down by the futility of “playing God to a few.”

It’s a worthy message—one as strong as the film’s statement that refugees are “like us,” people who had lives as professors or doctors or movie critics before being cruelly displaced by conflict. But such pertinent points are hard to make out buried beneath the blood, guts, ponderous prose and oddly prominent use of the Red Hot Chili Peppers hit “Otherside.” The film’s de facto theme song appears in both its original version and two or three times reworked, once as a suite for string ensemble. Like several other choices, there’s beauty and nostalgia in it, but “Otherside” on a loop does little to serve the story.

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