The Last Face

In the opening credits, The Last Face sets its tone with a statement as muddled as it is maddening, claiming that the 21st century civil wars in Liberia and Sudan are “a corruption of innocence known only through the brutality of an impossible love between a man and a woman.”

Thus begins this example of “white savior complex” at its most pandering — an ill-conceived attempt to shine a light on human-rights atrocities featuring a tone-deaf perspective that tends to exploit victims of war and oppression in favor of glorifying their outsider rescuers.

Perhaps deep down they mean well, yet the esteemed cast and director Sean Penn are better off striking this misfire from their respective resumes.

Wren (Charlize Theron) is the organizer of an agency whose relief mission lands her in Sudan, where she encounters a doctor (Javier Bardem) who also happens to be her ex-lover. Flashbacks reveal the extent of their relationship, which links to their combined efforts during another period of civil unrest in Liberia a decade earlier.

The primary focus becomes not how many lives they can save from the carnage, but whether they can rekindle their spark against such a backdrop.

Of course, to criticize the film is not to condemn the tireless courage and frequently unsung heroism of international humanitarian workers who thrust themselves into harm’s way. Nor does it mean they can’t fall in love and draw inspiration from one another. However, even as you applaud the relief efforts, you might cringe when, for example, Wren and Miguel exchange flirtatious glances while delivering the baby of a Liberian woman.

Along with its questionable ethics, the pretentious and heavy-handed screenplay tends to oversimplify conflicts. It provides minimal sociopolitical context or room for emotional investment in anyone of color — merely showing the faces of cute children caught in the crossfire does not count as character development.

Such an approach might be more tolerable if the central romance was more involving. Instead, the film is saddled with a lethargic pace, pedantic narration, overbearing score, and a surprising lack of sincerity.

Penn (Into the Wild) has proven himself as a capable filmmaker in the past, and The Last Face is technically proficient, with moments of harrowing violence. But as a provocative account of the need for aid in contemporary war-torn Africa, it’s hardly worth the price of a cup of coffee.


Rated R, 130 minutes.