Serenity Review: A Thriller Lost at Sea

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 23: Director Steven Knight, Anne Hathaway, Matthew McConaughey and Diane Lane attend a special screening of 'Serenity' on January 23, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage)

What do you get when you mix the hottest stars of the day, Hitchcockian thrillers, Moby Dick, and the most baffling twist of maybe the 21st century?

Serenity

Serenity stars Matthew McConaughey as Baker Dill, a veteran-turned-fisherman on a small, remote island, who takes wealthy tourists out to sea to hunt big game. However, he’s willing to throw all that away if it means catching “the big one,” a massive tuna he has christened “Justice.” It’s that kind of movie, folks.

Baker Dill is more salt & vinegar potato chip than man. His life is a routine that he can barely hold on to. When he’s not out at sea, Baker Dill drinks, smokes, and screws Diane Lane for gas money, all so he can get back to sea and seek Justice once again. Buckle in.

Baker’s repetitive existence is interrupted by an old flame, Anne Hathaway, still playing Catwoman, apparently, who approaches Baker with a proposition; she will give him ten million dollars if he takes her abusive husband out to sea and kills him.

Now we’ve got ourselves a thriller!

But as with all thrillers, things are not as they seem. In an attempt to escape from the world, Baker has wound up on an island as idealistic as it is remote, but it’s an island where everyone knows everything. Indeed, it becomes clear that everyone on the island knows about the job Baker has been tasked to perform – especially a conspicuously out of place businessman who calls himself ‘The Rules.’

What is going on? Who is this businessman? Why does Baker Dill keep having visions of a boy on his computer? Why is this movie being released in January?

Like any good mystery, the answers are all connected.

A Dying Genre

Thrillers seem to have gone the way of the dodo, and neo-noirs face the same fate. While the genre used to be the bread and butter of filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma, lately they’ve fallen on hard times. Though we’re in something of a renaissance for noirs with shows like True Detective, in cinemas, it’s a wasteland. Why? Noirs are high-concept violent crime dramas about down and dirty people. What’s not to like?

Well, for one thing, they’re fiendishly difficult to get right. Let’s not forget, even well-regarded thrillers like Strangers on a Train end with the absurdly silly “carousel of doom” sequences.

A good thriller relies on hard-boiled characters, an intriguing location, and hopefully a solid twist. Unfortunately, twist movies are all too predictable these days. As an audience, we are collectively too familiar with the genre for our own good. We pick out the tricks too quickly. Even masters like Martin Scorsese trip into this puddle with films like Shutter Island, which for all its charms, no one would describe as “surprising.” For every Se7en, you get The Game. For every Memento, you get The Dark Knight Rises, and for every The Sixth Sense, you get the rest of M Night Shyamalan’s career.

Its hard to make a thriller that stands out, and boy, does Serenity try to stand out.

The Script

Serenity comes courtesy of Steven Knight, a strong filmmaker whose credits include the Cronenberg thriller Eastern Promises, the Tom Hardy drama Locke, and Dirty, Pretty Things, the latter of which he was nominated for an Oscar.

This just makes the screenplay for Serenity all the more puzzling.

Serenity feels like a movie written by a first year film student. Everything is on the nose, over-written, and pleased with itself. Everything meant to feel intriguing or eccentric feels forced, everything meant to feel sexy feels cringe-inducing (Diane Lane dipping out of frame to ask Dill where her “kitty” is, for example), and everything dangerous feels clumsy. In other words, it feels like a thirteen year old wrote it, which is more substantial than you might realize.

The entire movie is setups without payoffs and payoffs without setups. Dill’s first mate (Djimon Hounsou) has a wife who has died before the movie starts. Where is this going? Nowhere. He’s a Christian. Where is that going? Dill asks him for guidance once and ignores it. Glad we spent time on that subplot.

Diane Lane only becomes more down to earth and gorgeous with age. At first its great to see her playing a role that isn’t Ma Kent, but the minute Anne Hathaway shows up, Lane is relegated to staring out a window as if to say “where did my part go?”

Serenity also stars Jason Clarke as Anne Hathaway’s evil husband. How evil is he? He’s a construction worker who is also a big game fisherman, who strips and whips Hathaway with his belt, threatens to abandon her son, and openly talks about where he can rape teenagers now that the “one cop on the island” is out of town. No, really.

The premise of “kill my husband for me” is only interesting if there are shades to the victim. But no, he’s painted as villainous as can be, with broad strokes that would make Van Gough blush. Usually, writers will do this because they’re more interested in talking about something else, but in this case what they’re talking about is something so insane, so mind-bogglingly dumb, that it just has to be seen to be believed.

The Twist

Don’t worry. I won’t spoil the twist here. I can’t. I won’t! This is a twist you have to experience for yourself, but suffice to say, Serenity is not a movie for you to enjoy in the moment. Serenity is a movie you enjoy by forcing your friends to watch it and spend most of the time peaking at them to see how they’re reacting to the shit storm that unfolds.

Knight has intentionally crafted a “fool-proof” narrative loophole. Every awful aspect of his screenplay is “explained” by this reveal. Characters who suddenly have no purpose. Vague and shitty dialogue. A character who can’t remember past yesterday with no plans past tomorrow. All of this is “covered” by a twist; a twist so insane, it feels impossible that it was actually printed on paper and handed to professionals to read. A twist so bonkers, it feels like a practical joke. Knight may think he’s cracked the code with this surprise, but it blows up in his face and the faces of anyone else who is watching.

“See?” the movie says, shaking you by the shoulders. “You thought I was a poorly-written movie, but I’m actually a DUMB movie!”

The twist to Serenity seeks to re-contextualize everything you’ve seen up to that point. Every character interaction, every clunky radio announcement, every off-island cutaway, even every sunset on this perfect little island. It wants to change the way you think about everything. Unfortunately, it is a twist that asks more questions than it answers.

Suddenly, every character action which was supposedly explained is made even more inexplicable. A simple element intended to tie the world together has torn it apart at the seams. Its a hydra of a plot twist. You answer one question and three more pop up. “Wait, so if they had sex on the boat, does that mean he meant it to happen?” “Why would he do that?” “Was Baker Dill’s perfectly sculpted ass intentional?”

All these questions and more will NOT be answered!

Last Word On Serenity.

Serenity is as stupid as it is misguided. But it is not without merit. The cinematography is wonderful even if some of the camera moves are jarring (though they are, again, explained by the twist).

The performances are ridiculous and the ending is absurd, but I can’t say I wasn’t pumping my fist at the events that unfolded around me.

Serenity is a mess, but it’s a mess that comes from supreme confidence. Hundreds of people signed off on this movie. This movie had SEVENTEEN producers and not one of them shut it down. Maybe because they wanted to see audiences react to this reveal. I sure hope so.

Serenity should inspire you. If this movie can get made, so can yours.

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