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Entries in Sean Penn (1)

Friday
Oct062017

THE LAST FACE

Stars: Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Jared Harris and Jean Reno.
Writer: Erin Dignam
Director: Sean Penn

Rating: 1.5/5

Representing an inconceivable disconnect between the humanitarian activist we know him to be and a filmmaker capable of this tone-deaf dreck, The Last Face is a tortuous misstep for director Sean Penn. The global refugee crisis is entitled to a far more respectful and insightful account of its horrors than is afforded in this shrill melodrama, in which the displaced (and often dismembered) people of central Africa are only addressed when it benefits the turgid romance between Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem.

Shooting the carnage of tribal conflict with the kind of rich colours, ambient music cues and soft focus edges usually reserved for high-end consumer ad campaigns, Penn asks of his movie star leads the impossible – to imbue their rocky, photogenic love story with the same resonance as the hell on earth in which it unfolds. Not a chance, given that Theron’s spoilt brat daddy’s girl and Bardem’s heart-of-gold warzone lothario are two of the most objectionable characters of contemporary cinema.

Bouncing between the conflicts of South Sudan, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Theron vocalizes her South African origins as Dr Wren Petersen, the beautiful white face of global social activism. Tired of fronting conferences and boardrooms in an effort to affect minimal change, she lands in Africa to join fellow medical heroes on the ground, saving the population with their superior skills and winning smiles (amongst them are the wasted acting talents of French doc Jean Reno and Brit medic Jared Harris). Most charismatic of the lot is Bardem’s Miguel Leon, a smooth-talking playboy surgeon capable of wooing his new charge with his stubble and grin as they celebrate a successful night time jungle caesarean.

But warzone romances never go as planned, and soon Wren and Miguel are bickering, then making up, then amputating legs, crying a bit, then having sex, then riding in jeeps. It doesn’t help that Wren’s cousin Ellen (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a past conquest of Miguel’s, keeps turning up (HIV positive, to boot). It does help that the lovebird’s most emotional moments are shot in Africa’s ‘golden hour’ sunlight, the cries of the wounded silenced just long enough for both stars to emote their own pain. All that faux emoting requires some serious padding; cue yet another bloated, droning score from Hans Zimmer.      

In the hands of veteran DOP Barry Aykroyd, Penn’s visual style mimics the floaty, ethereal lens of his Tree of Life director and obvious influencer, Terrence Malick. Yet mimicry is all it is, with The Last Face offering not a single frame of Malick’s contemplative strengths (which, to be honest, have even let Malick himself down lately). Penn’s strengths used to be gritty understatement in the service of society’s fringe dwellers (The Indian Runner, 1991; The Pledge, 2001) and spiritual dreamers (Into the Wild, 2007). In his latest, Penn only proves adept at staging the grotesque horrors of third world civil conflicts; in addition to the birth scene, piles of bodies buzzing with flies and corpses, both dismembered and disembowelled, offer up the pic’s only moments of realism.

Whatever Sean Penn’s good intentions may have been, in every other regard The Last Face is the kind of misguided vanity project/message movie only the egos of Hollywood’s most powerful talents can afford to conjure.