In the opening scene of the mind-numbingly bonkers Serenity, a wild-eyed Matthew McConaughey, as the skipper of a boat with the titular name, pulls a knife on the “paying customers” he has taken out fishing from his home base of the vaguely Caribbean-ish “Plymouth Island,” because he thinks they’ve got on their line “the Beast,” the giant tuna he is absolutely obsessed with catching. He needs to be the one to catch it, and he will cut anyone who gets in his way.
The moment is deeply, deeply bizarre, far more so than words can convey, and yet Serenity has only just gotten started. I mean, sure, insert Moby-Dick ref here, but you cannot even begin to comprehend where this movie is going to go with this, or where it’s going to take itself, merrily, with the sort of no-fucks-given abandon that too few movies dare. Mostly they don’t dare because it’s really really tough to pull off what writer-director Steven Knight is trying to pull off here. And, indeed, Knight fails in ways that are equal parts baffling and (accidentally) hilarious, shifting genres like to give you cinematic whiplash, and in a way seemingly specifically guaranteed not to satisfy fans of any of the hugely disparate story styles his movie invokes. Partly because he does so with a gleeful caprice that is far less about exploring any of the huge ideas and should-be meaningful concepts he plays with than it is about simply fucking with the audience because he can.
So, genres. Second up, after the man-versus-fish adventure, and not-at-all spoilery, we have film noir: Baker Dill’s (McConaughey) slinky, sultry ex, Karen (Anne Hathaway), shows up outta nowhere and offers him ten million dollars in cash to kill her mobster husband, Frank Zariakas (Jason Clarke). She has a sob story about how Frank beats her and sexually abuses her, and how he treats Karen’s son, tween Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) — who is Baker’s biological child, not that he’s seen the kid in years — like dirt. Karen proposes that Baker take Frank out fishing, get him drunk, and push him overboard to swim with the fishes.
Baker refuses: he’s a screwup, but not that big a screwup. Sure, he drinks too much — thanks to “Iraq and the medals” — and is constantly broke, but this is a request too far. Enter Duke (Djimon Hounsou), Baker’s occasional first mate and regular preacher, who guesses what Baker has been asked to do and informs Baker that “there is a God” who will stand in judgment, etc, etc. Duke seems to be a superfluous character since Baker is pretty adamant that he will not commit murder no matter how badly the son of a bitch might deserve it. Still: Grappling with moral gray areas is a standard trope of film noir, so we’ll give Serenity the benefit of the doubt and say that it hasn’t shifted genres again yet.
Almost every performance here is a pantomime, and worse, the movie seems to thinks it requires this.
But there’s something weirdly amiss about Plymouth Island. And there’s the arrival of the very strange Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong), a sort of door-to-door MIB, who might as well be carrying the suitcase from Repo Man. Everyone on the island knows everyone else’s business in ways that go way beyond small towns and gossip as a way to pass the time. And then there’s Baker’s odd, almost psychic connection with his son, sitting in his bedroom elsewhere tapping away on his computer; he’s a genius or something, Karen reports to Baker.
I cannot even breath a hint of a couple of major — like iconic — movies that Serenity made me think of, if only with a desperate longing for their far superior and infinitely more engaging exploration of similar ideas, because to mention them would be enormously spoilerish. Suffice to say that Serenity believes that it redeems — makes a virtue of, even — its Hollywood-typical adolescent-boy attitudes about women, sex, violence, ethics, philosophy, and religion. (Poor Hathaway, who is treated like dirt by this movie when it thinks it is championing her character. But even worse is how Diane Lane, as Baker’s island fuck buddy, is treated. Women here are either sad victims or happy toys of men.) Almost every performance here is a pantomime, and yet it’s difficult to blame the cast for their cartoonishness because the movie thinks it requires that of them; I’m sure they turned in the work that Knight asked of them. But the result is nevertheless an ugly, nasty movie that ultimately renders itself utterly pointless, and that does not earn any of the big emotion it wants to be about by its ending.
The biggest question I am left with after this pathetic excuse for a mystery thriller is this: Who greenlit this, and why? And that guy — I have no doubt it’s a man, because this movie is all about reinforcing some very boy-centric notions of reality — needs to never turn down a single woman filmmaker’s pitch for the rest of eternity.
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