A film review by Craig J. Koban February 6, 2019

SERENITY j
 

2019, R, 106 mins.

 

Matthew McConaughey as Baker Dill  /  Anne Hathaway as Karen  /  Diane Lane as Constance  /  Jeremy Strong as Reid Miller  /  Jason Clarke as Frank Zakarias  /  Djimon Hounsou as Duke  /  Robert Hobbs as Ape  /  Kenneth Fok as Lionel  /  Rafael Sayegh as Patrick

Written and directed by Steven Knight

I don't have the slightest idea how to review this film.  

How would anyone, for that matter.   

Let me explain. 

SERENITY (not to be confused with the 2005 Joss Whedon directed sci-fi film of the same name) is a new neo-noir thriller written and directed by Steven Knight, who previously made the 2014 Tom Hardy drama LOCKE (which miraculously contained ample tension and masterful intrigue despite being a one man movie mostly set in a car).  Based on the established promises of the enormity of Knight's talent being brought to the table in SERENITY - combined with an all-star cast, featuring two Oscar winners in the lead roles - I had high hopes for this new endeavor.   

Having said all of that, SERENITY has to be literally seen to be believed.  I don't mean that in a good sense.  This has to be one of the most idiotically plotted films featuring a strong director and A-list performers that I've frankly ever seen.  That, and SERENITY is simply, well, bonkers.  Like, ape shit crazy.  That can be a blessing, seeing as the implausible scripting insanity of some films can oddly give them their eccentric and ethereal charm, and perhaps there's something of value to say about just how ambitiously crazy Knight's film really is.  Regrettably, what begins as a mostly diverting, but mostly obligatory and on genre autopilot noir soon devolves into multiple ludicrous plot twists that even M. Night Shyamalan couldn't dream up on a bad day.  I don't think that I left my screening of SERENITY feeling cheated (there's nothing wrong with a film completely defying expectations generated from its trailer campaign), but I did feel like my time was ultimately wasted by a film that sure as hell thinks it's a lot more clever than its audience.  

And that's what makes SERENITY so smugly off-putting.   

 

 

Dissecting this film will prove mightily difficult without delving into heavy spoiler territory, so I will attempt to avoid them the best I can.  Here's the basic hook of SERENITY: The story concerns a Floridian fishing boat captain that is approached by his desperate ex-wife to murder her criminal and abusive husband, but make it look like an accident.  That's pretty much it until things get...extremely weird and hard to swallow later on.  More specifically, the main protagonist is the unintentionally hilariously named Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey, frequently shirtless and sometimes pantless, but thoroughly committed here), who's a down on his luck fisherman on a quest to nab a highly prized, but hard to catch tuna, a quest that's supported by his loyal second in command in Duke (Djimon Hounsou).  When not embarking on seeking out this tuna, Baker takes odd jobs taking paying clients out on his boat, and when he's not doing that he's being paid for sex by one of the town's lonely older widows (a wasted Diane Lane).   

Baker's life of obsession on the seas, heavy boozing, and promiscuity is changed forever when he's a reacquainted with his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway), who's now a trophy wife - and a deeply unhappy one, at that - to Frank (Jason Clarke), who perceives his wife as his sexual plaything to do whatever he pleases with, even if it involves violence.  Karen has had about enough of Frank's beyond evil treatment of her, so she hatches the aforementioned plan to get Baker to do him in for millions, which will not only remove this toxic human being off of the face of the earth, but will also afford Baker a chance to reconnect with his son that he shares with Karen, who's become so emotionally wrought over his mother's hellish relationship with Frank that he retreats to video games as a form of relief.  At first, Baker doesn't want anything to with Karen's plans, but when he realizes the financial peril that he's in - and how much he misses his son - he begrudgingly agrees to partake in this potentially dangerous mission. 

And it's at this point in SERENITY - roughly halfway through - where the film starts to become completely derailed from...how shall I say it...reality. 

I'll say this in partial defense of Knight's film: As far as story introductions go, I was kind of intrigued with what he was setting up here.  Even though it looks early on like SERENITY is going to be a dime-a-dozen and routine murder thriller with a maximum sleaze quotient, I was nevertheless involved as to where everything was heading.  That, and McConaughey is in pure and enjoyable camera mugging mode here as his rum drinking and tough talking war veteran turned mythical tuna hunting fisherman.  There's nothing inherently phoned in about the actor's work here, and as the sheer madness of this film's second half starts baring down on him and the other actors, he still manages to be engaging and elevates the problematic material he's given.   

Actually, let me say this:  If it weren't for McConaughey then SERENITY would have been unwatchable

His co-stars don't fare as well here.  Hathaway tries to go for wounded, vulnerable, but tough willed femme fatale vibes here in a mostly telegraphed and awkward performance (Karen emerges more as a plot device than a fully realized character), and as for the other woman in SERENITY Lane has a mournfully underwritten role as the old town slut that basically spends the majority of the film paying to bang Baker (the actresses in this film deserve far better).  Clarke's heavy and target for assassination is painted in broad caricatured brushstrokes to the point where even the typically refined and understated actor comes off like he's hamming it up way, way too much.  Frank is an easily detestable character here, but there are very little attempts made by Knight to make him more than just a one-note villain throughout. 

Ultimately, all of the actors could have given career high performances in SERENITY and it still wouldn't matter, because Knight's script - which I guess I could describe (without being spoilery) as being "ultra high concept" - completely, abruptly and unforgivably changes gears in its latter half to the point of making audience members re-think everything - and I do mean everything - that's has transpired in the plot leading up to this point.  When it comes to plot twists, the ones Knight dreams up are gigantic, but are also really, really easy to anticipate, especially with a bizarre appearance of strange and out of place businessman (Jeremy Strong) that keeps showing up everyday at around the same ill fated time to urgently speak to Baker, only just missing him by minutes.  Because you know that something is just...off...about this character you can sense that something with the story will unavoidable prove to be...off...as well.   

That, and Knight's plot twists are just so bloody nonsensical and mind bogglingly unnecessary in the large scheme of things.  SERENITY could have coasted by on the modestly compelling arc of witnessing Baker wrestle with his past and current demons while deciding to embark on one of the biggest sins of killing another person if it means a happy emancipation of two important people in his life.  Sure, this is the very stuff of countless noir thrillers, but it would have been nice to see Knight follow through on it.  SERENITY could have also attained a level of B-grade trashy fun as a piece of disposable, but enjoyable pulp entertainment.  But, damn it, Knight's film becomes so unbelievably hard to swallow and invest oneself in after its movie breaking twists that I simply would have preferred a climax shocker that revealed that everything that transpired was all just a silly dream.  I've rarely seen a film become so nuts after starting so conventionally.  SERENITY is nuttier than a proverbial fruitcake, but no where near as digestible.  

I'm sure that Knight had something legitimately important to say about his film's revelations, but I simply don't know what they are.  Seriously, just what in the hell was his end game with SERENITY?  That even a man capable of making one of the best films of 2014 would also end up being capable of making one of the worst of the very young new year?  

Well, mission accomplished.  

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