Directed by Steven Knight.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Jason Clarke, and Djimon Hounsou.
A down-on-his-luck war veteran is offered a tempting offer to solve his money troubles by his ex-wife to kill her husband but not everything is at it appears in this slick mystery film.
Serenity for the most part is a solid if unremarkable neo-noir. But as the film’s twists come together near the end, Serenity soon becomes embroiled in numerous genres that would appear to be far from its initial story. Even naming the genres might constitute a spoiler.
What can one say? Matthew McConaughey is Baker Dill, a nihilistic, Iraq veteran, who has settled into an impoverished existence as a fisherman in a mythic town called Plymouth. Drunk but alert enough, Dill manages to scrape by a humble existence with his boat-mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) and some-time lover Constance (Diane Lane). Director Steven Knight assembles the usual arche-types of the noir from loyal friend to ethically ambiguous hero to sagacious bartender but the manipulation of these elements goes from strong to progressively weak as the film moves forward.
The film arguably begins to worsen when Anne Hathaway playing Baker’s ex-wife, Karen, turns up. As would be expected with the femme fatale finally introduced, trash talk, violence, and sex-infused quips follow. Not a superstitious man, Baker initially dismisses Karen’s sob story of her reconsiders Karen’s proposition: take loutish husband out for a nice boat ride and dump him overboard to be fed upon by the sharks. The proposition itself is no revelation because like any noir the tension comes from Baker’s attitude towards the femme and her devil’s bargain and whether he embraces his role of being a hero to Karen or simply an opportunist (she offers her body and a tidy sum of ten million as well).
It is at this point though that probably most viewers will begin to revolt against Knight’s clever if not justified plot twists. All one can say is how much Baker’s and Karen’s son takes on central importance in ways that are unimaginable. I certainly was not able to anticipate the sheer audacious ways the story tries to solve its many paradoxes.
Since deception is built into the noir some sleight-of-hand deception will need to be accepted legitimately by a critic or movie-goer. However, Serenity while it did not outrage me will probably anger most viewers and critics. From one perspective, the ending, literally, negates the whole emotional import of the film and renders Baker’s story, at best, into a minor detail. From another, it offers an exciting (if frustrating) array of possible interpretations of what the beginning of the narrative and where it (supposedly) leads.
Alas, overall, Serenity falls into the category of being too frustrating to be worth the trouble of untangling its sometimes cringe-worthy logical gaps and painfully acted scenes. The performers are committed enough but because much of the acting is deliberately misleading it is hard to judge it as either well done or simply too clever for its own good.
It is also unfair but inescapable that Serenity is being released just when Glass has also been released. Superficially, Glass and Serenity are worlds apart but structurally they are amazingly similar. But M. Night Shyamalan no matter how one judges Glass is not shocking anyone in offering a twist at the end of his films. One may have grown tired of Shyamalan’s tricks but few would say he is guilty of fooling his audiences in any fundamental sense since they know he will withhold information for much of the film.
In contrast, Knight will probably offend people more than entertain them when he, literally, destroys the world he has built just as Shyamalan did. But because Knight’s world is so lightly constructed the act of deconstruction has the feel of a distracted writer unable to come up with a good ending and simply settling on a shocking one no matter how ridiculous. In fact, Shyamalan destroys far less of his universe than Knight who just wipes the whole thing clean – the voiceovers in the end try to out-Hitchcock Hitchcock’s Psycho.
One can conclude that either Serenity is an average noir with an illogical twist ending or it is a double-barreled noir and genre-defying metanarrative that masterfully juggles both acts. Most people will say it is more of the former than the latter but most of the story is entertaining enough if not ground-breaking. A movie worth seeing but perhaps with the key warning that it will inspire more laughter and disbelief than Knight might have intended. Serenity is a sold two-star film that is recommendable but perhaps not worth more than one major gasp or burst of laughter.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★