Each year, the Film Independent Spirit Awards gives the John Cassavetes Award to the year’s best feature made for under $500,000. In this column, film critic David Bax compares and contrasts past Cassavetes winners with their filmmakers’ most recent work.
Pariah, which won her the John Cassavetes Award at the 27th Film Independent Spirit Awards in February of 2012, is the first fiction feature directed by Dee Rees and the film’s overwhelming critical reception, starting at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival over a year prior, was deservedly name-making. But Pariah also announced the arrival of cinematographer Bradford Young, who’d been working in independent film for years but whose tactile neon cityscapes and swift, deliberate camera movements here paved the way for a higher profile career that would go on to include an Oscar nomination for 2016’s Arrival.
Don’t worry; I’m not trying to use an article about Rees to spend my time praising someone else instead. On the contrary, I aim to point out that, despite Rees and Young not yet having worked together again, Rees’ films have continued to be visually distinct works filled with images of power and fluidity (one of which would be nominated for an Oscar of its own). The word for directors who are visually consistent despite collaborating with different directors of photography is “auteur.”
Aesthetics aren’t the only thing that make an auteur, though. Often there are thematic consistencies as well, preoccupations to which the director returns again and again. Pariah, with its story of a teenage lesbian named Alike (Adepero Oduye) navigating love and friendship under the eyes of an intolerant, unaccepting mother and father (Kim Wayans and Charles Parnell) who believe they have the right to control not just want their kids do but who they are, introduces one such theme that will continue to mark Rees’ work, fraught parent/child relationships.
Rees’ follow-up to Pariah was the 2015 HBO movie Bessie, about blues singer Bessie Smith, an orphan who was abused by the older sister who raised her. 2017’s much-feted Mudbound, though, bears a more specific resemblance to the conflicts in Pariah. Once again, parents who think they know best and mean well disapprove of their child’s relationship. This time, though, it’s a friendship between two men, one Black and one white (Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund), who have returned from World War II and who find that their shared experiences are a stronger bond than the racism under which their families, respectively, toil and exploit.
That brings us to Rees’ most recent work, the idiosyncratic, hypnotic and widely misjudged 2020 Joan Didion adaptation The Last Thing He Wanted. With Anne Hathaway starring as a 1970s political journalist who reluctantly takes over her estranged, ailing father’s criminal business to keep him out of harm, difficult familial relationships are once again front and center. In this particular arena, actually, The Last Thing He Wanted represents a deepening of that theme. In the previous films, the characters in the role of the child were the victims. Hathaway’s Elena is a thoroughly capable—even formidable—adult woman. Even if her father (Willem Dafoe, endearingly slimy) is a patented deadbeat in the parenting department, Rees and Hathaway never allow that to excuse Elena’s flaws or her own responsibilities. Elena herself would never make such excuses. Why should the movie?
Rees’ behind-the-lens collaborator this time is Bobby Bukowski, a nearly 40-year veteran of independent film with a sturdy track record (Household Saints, The Messenger, 99 Homes). Where Pariah adopted a largely handheld, reactive approach that could be described as verité, The Last Thing He Wanted—despite being a work of historical fiction—opts for a more vibrant, elegant and often dreamlike approach. Where Young’s camera whipped and prodded, Bukowski’s glides and lingers.
One fellow artist with whom Rees has worked time and time again is composer and musician Tamar-kali. She appeared as more-or-less herself in Pariah when Alike and her new friend (Aasha Davis) go see the rocker play a show, wrote the mournful, furious score for Mudbound and has since become a go-to composer for cerebral directors aiming for a sinister, seductive paranoia (as with Josephine Decker’s Shirley). Tamar-kali’s music for The Last Thing He Wanted is propulsive without being insistent and ingenious without being twee. Strings and piano form the backbone of the score but are complemented with the occasional drum or synth or Dragnet-style brass. Like the rest of the film, the music is unselfconsciously singular.
It’s truly disheartening for The Last Thing He Wanted to have gotten the poor critical reception that it did. But it cannot be said that Rees didn’t take the good will and support she’d built over the years and use it to shoot her goddamn shot. It’s a perplexing but alluring vibe of a movie, a sinister thriller with a plot that deliquesces almost psychedelically the closer you get to it, with major movie stars like Hathaway playing an unglamorous woman in glamorous locales and Ben Affleck playing less a character than the personification of a corrupt state’s inevitable, ineffable will. It’s a strange, rare animal. It’s on Netflix. Go watch it..
Watch Dee Rees’ keynote conversation—at the time of Mudbound‘s release—from the 2017 Film Independent Forum:
Other nominees: Rees was up against Evan Glodell for Bellflower, whose follow-up feature Chuck Hank and the San Diego Twins is due out later this year; Maryam Keshavarz for the rebellious Iranian teen drama Circumstance, who directed an episode of Queen Sugar in 2017 and the Susan Sarandon-starring Viper Club in 2018; Matthew Gordon for The Dynamiter, who now works as a producer of documentaries; and Adam Reid for Hello Lonesome, who went on to create The Tiny Chef Show, a series of shorts that was picked up by Nickelodeon.
The Film Independent Spirit Awards are the primary fundraiser for Film Independent’s year-round programs, which cultivate the careers of emerging filmmakers and promote diversity and inclusion in the film industry.
Film Independent promotes unique independent voices by helping filmmakers create and advance new work. To become a Member of Film Independent, just click here. To support us with a donation, click here.
Editor’s Note: an earlier version of this blog originally ran in March of this year. Special thanks to author David Bax.
Keep up with Film Independent…
(Header: The Last Thing He Wanted)