Though its big ideas don’t work, Serenity’s narrative miscalculations result in some pretty entertaining – if completely unintentional – comedy.
Even in a January full of perplexing films, the new Matthew McConaughey vehicle Serenity takes the prize for the most confounding movie of the month. The film’s trailers clearly suggest there’s more to Steven Knight’s noir drama than meets the eye, but it turns out they’ve only grazed the surface when it comes to the movie’s third act twists. Before then, however, there’s a lot about Serenity that doesn’t make sense, and the big reveals do little to change that. If anything, the film’s secrets elevate what would’ve otherwise been a clumsy exercise in genre storytelling into what will probably go down as one of 2019’s most ludicrous offerings. Though its big ideas don’t work, Serenity‘s narrative miscalculations result in some pretty entertaining – if completely unintentional – comedy.
McConaughey stars in Serenity as Baker Dill, a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking, fishing boat captain who lives on the remote tropical island of Plymouth and is obsessed with catching a giant tuna fish he not-so-subtly calls “Justice”, even if it comes at the expense of his small-time business and religious crew-mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou). When he’s not taking drunk customers out to sea or fishing to make a buck, Baker gets by with a little help from Constance (Diane Lane), a local who’s got cash to burn and is more than willing to fund Baker’s unruly lifestyle… so long as he continues sleeping with her on the side, that is.
Everything changes one night when Baker is approached at a local bar by Karen Zariakas (Anne Hathaway), a woman who knows his real name is John – because they were high school sweethearts who got married and eventually divorced, some ten years earlier. Karen, as it turns out, wants Baker to kill her abusive new husband Frank (Jason Clarke) by taking him out to sea and leaving him to drown, for a hefty payment of no less than $10 million. As Baker mulls her offer and starts to wonder if he would really do it, he also starts to realize that Plymouth and his new life in general might not be what they appear.
As mentioned, there’s something off about Serenity well before the third act gets underway. Knight’s script is full of laughably hard-boiled dialogue and, in terms of his direction, the filmmaker delivers some noticeably jarring shifts in mood and style, sometimes within the span of a single scene. One moment, the movie is as visually gruff and unrefined as its grumbling protagonist, the next it’s as slickly polished as a music video. This also results in some pretty abrupt changes in tone, especially when Serenity switches gears from being a pulpy neo-noir to trying to tackle serious subject matter (like domestic abuse) in a more realistic and grounded fashion. The film’s twists don’t really explain these discrepancies so much as excuse them, and in doing so fails to give audiences much reason to reconsider everything they’ve seen up to that point.
By the time the film enters its second half, it becomes clear that Serenity is less interested in exploring the noir tropes it’s drawing from and more invested in examining ideas about morality, the universe, and the very nature of human existence. This is also the portion of the movie where McConaughey begins to wax philosophical about himself and the lives of those around him, as though he’s back playing Rust Cohle on True Detective. However, whereas the actor’s “McConaughlogues” in that show either shed light on his character or tied into the larger themes of its narrative, his speeches here tend to feel aimless. Even after the movie reveals what’s really going on, it never becomes clear what the actual point of its story is. Meanwhile, the obvious metaphors in Knight’s script become (if anything) even more ham-fisted than before.
In a film this bizarre, it’s appropriate that McConaughey delivers one of his weirder performances to date. The actor feels a bit out of his element in the early-going, but hits his stride when Baker transitions from being a grouchy, sweaty mess to seeing his world clearly for the first time and finally realizing the truth about his new life. What makes McConaughey’s performance odd is that he plays the character’s entire arc with a straight face, even when he’s saddled with some truly goofy lines of dialogue. Hathaway seems a bit more self-aware in her role as the film’s femme fatale (as does Lane in her turn as an older temptress), but if anything that highlights just how regressive the film is when it comes to its portrayal of women. Similarly, Clarke makes for a pretty cartoonishly evil antagonist – right down to his gold-laced shoes and belt – and Hounsou’s devout character mostly functions as Baker’s conscience, making him little more than a two-dimensional stereotype.
Again, Serenity attempts to reframe these noir archetypes with its plot twists, but mostly ends up making them feel even sillier than before. Still, despite its many shortcomings, there’s some respectable craftsmanship on display here. Cinematographer Jess Hall does a nice job photographing the film’s real-world backdrop (the island nation of Mauritius) and draws from a rich color palate to bring the island’s sunny days, rainy nights, and deep blue sea to life. Benjamin Wallfisch’s atmospheric score further serves to set the mood throughout the film and gives it much of its ominously enigmatic flavor. The only real problem with the movie, stylistically speaking, is that its editing within scenes tends to feel disjointed, as though they were chopped up and cobbled back together to be as short as possible.
Knight has made high-concept movies that work before (see Locke), but in this case his big ideas simply got away from him. This also explains why Serenity went through a couple of release date changes before its distributor decided to dump it in January, where it would have the best chance of success competing against similarly campy, messy, and/or just plain ridiculous movies at the box office. Those who want to see the film simply to find out how wacky it really is are safe to wait until Serenity his the home video market in the not-too-distant future – and who knows, they may even enjoy it without a hint of irony. As for everyone else: don’t worry, there are brighter days ahead, now that February’s right around the corner.
Serenity is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 106 minutes long and is rated R for language throughout, sexual content, and some bloody images.
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