As a director, Sean Penn has consistently displayed a sharp attention to character detail and narrative rhythm. What makes his latest film, The Last Face, so remarkably and epically terrible isn’t simply that these attributes are present in nary a single scene, but that every decision made here, be it visual, narrative, moral, or political, is so woefully misguided that the film almost plays as a satire exposing the oblivious sense of racial, cultural, and class privilege that it virtually flaunts in audiences’ faces.
Set during the Liberian civil war and the time of the more recent genocide in South Sudan, The Last Face callously pushes the suffering and deaths of millions of Africans to the fringes, often literally blurring them at the edge of the frame. Instead, from the opening titles that directly and tastelessly compare the “shared brutality of corrupted innocence” of these large-scale atrocities to the “brutality of an impossible love,” focus is continually drawn to the dysfunctional relationship between Wren (Charlize Theron), the director of an international aid agency, and Miguel (Javier Bardem), a relief doctor.
Were these characters given some sort of symbolic significance, perhaps such an offensive, insipid comparison could be overlooked or at least explained, but Wren and Miguel are more ciphers than symbols. They’re well-meaning doctors dealing with the stresses that come with fighting a losing battle against a continent’s seemingly endless, cyclical violence. The stakes of their inability to cope, however, are foolishly and rather offensively raised to the same level as the millennium-long hardships of an entire continent.
As Wren struggles to emerge from the shadow of her father’s legacy as the founder of the Doctors Without Borders-esque Medicins du Monde, Miguel tries to help her discover who she is and share his passion for curing the sick. Things, however, get a little thorny in their relationship when Wren discovers that not only was Miguel sleeping with her cousin, Ellen (Adèle Exarchopoulos), but that Ellen is also now HIV-positive. If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with African civil wars and genocide, the answer is not much at all. Miguel and Wren’s passion is so intense that it cannot be quashed by the atrocities that surround them. And The Last Face is so consumed by the couple’s emotional highs and lows that it never actually gets around to exploring the tragic circumstances around which it’s set.
The Last Face’s shameful exploitation of Africans doesn’t stop with the mere privileging of its two wealthy white doctors and their trivial personal struggles. The film abounds in National Geographic-style shots of human despair, from delimbed and dying Africans to piles of dead bodies that were used as human shields. But there’s no humanity in Penn’s gaze—only a pity that’s rendered further useless by his consistent use of Africans’ anguish merely to fill in as a tragic backdrop for the story’s central love affair.
Rather than treat its African characters as people whose context cannot be summed up with a paragraph-length title card or through the experiences of white doctors, The Last Face wallows in the shock and righteous indignation experienced by outsiders. Its intent seems not to better understand the Africans on a human or cultural level, but simply to filter their suffering through the experiences of people from the countries who colonized them.
Amid disemboweled Africans, constant warfare, and secondhand stories of women watching their sisters get raped and murdered, Miguel and Wren become increasingly consumed by each other in love and outrage. In a particularly silly sequence, they feverishly brush their teeth together, spit into a bowl, and immediately knock the bowl over in a fit of ravage lovemaking. And in the film’s only extended sequence where Africans are actually given a voice, most are part of a group of twisted rebels who torture several doctors and eventually cause the death of a young African boy. After pausing a few moments to capture the grief of the boy’s father, Penn again shifts focus back to Wren and Miguel recoiling in horror. Indeed, no transgression in The Last Face is given any credence or meaning outside of Wren and Miguel’s perspectives. And these perspectives are so limited and self-involved that they, like the film, are ultimately all sound and fury signifying nothing.