NO SPOILERS AHEAD
It’s only January, but I guarantee it. It’s not quite a so-bad-it’s-good sort of endeavor, where the camp is so low and ugliness so clear you can’t help but laugh your ass off. Serenity is more accomplished than that, erring on the side of sincerity when tackling all manner of pulpy buffoonery. Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway star in this would-be thriller about a bottom-feeding island fisherman living tourist to tourist, bumming a few bucks off of one local lady (Diane Lane) he bones when he needs to and otherwise only living to fish. It’s a simple tale at first glance, but as always, there’s something amiss.
The first clue that shenanigans are afoot is a bombastic score by a man named Benjamin Wallfisch. With all due respect to the guy, was he chosen for his name? The second clue is filmmaker Steven Knight’s outre fetishes, like speed ramping and circling his characters with a herky-jerky camera at random intervals. The third clue is a protagonist by the odd name of Baker Dill. McConaughey is in full rugged mode as Dill, hair greasy, skin crackin’, and suntan glowing as he maniacally pursues a big tuna off the coast of Plymouth Island with his boat hand Duke (Djimon Hounsou). As a former lover and baby mama of Dill’s, Hathaway is in full harlot mode, sporting a blonde dye job and pouty red lips as she purrs for Dill’s attention and, sometimes, affection. In one scene they screw each other and reject each other in the span of seconds, and for seemingly no reason other than call-of-the-wild vagaries. She’s sought him out for help in killing her abusive, Cuba-connected husband (Jason Clarke), a man for whom a mere scratch on her body is an affront to his sensibilities, and for whom their son is but a “little creep” who belongs in a hole in the ground. Baker must risk his life, not to mention his license, if he hopes to save his son from terrible abuse. In the wake of Great Gatsby, Mudbound, now this, it’s clear that Clarke is now Hollywood’s go-to guy for skeevy husbands. I can’t blame them.
The oddest thing of all is a bespectacled salesman (Jeremy Strong) who looks like he walked out of a 50’s screwball comedy, following Dill around like a dutiful puppy, constantly pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose and serving as pure stereotype for “nerdy businessman.” Ditto Diane Lane’s more-than-friendly girl next door, a cheeky noir character if I’ve ever seen one. Other characters exist for the sole purpose of reminding Dill of island law and questioning his stubborn ego. If none of that does it for ya, you know you’re in for it when Dill begins experiencing a psychic connection between himself and his boy back home, all via spilled water of all things. By the time a third act is winding down, and Dill has finished speaking to his son over pay phone to find the world has completely changed, you know you’ve seen perhaps one of the most preposterous yet spectacular examples of auteur genius gone awry in your lifetime. It’s a testament to McConaughey’s recent knack for playing troubled fathers that Dill’s existential crisis works emotionally if not logically. There’s a modicum of brilliance good and buried in Knight’s script, an attempt to surprise an audience that has grown accustomed to banal thrillers that go nowhere. This is ill-advised cinema at its most interesting and least insightful.
In the end Serenity takes itself far too seriously to achieve campy infamy, and therein lays Steven Knight’s biggest mistake. I can’t fault the guy for having big ideas or going for broke. There are worse things, particularly now, at a time when originality is so hard to come by. However, he should have recognized Serenity for what it could have been: a midnight movie for the ages. If nothing else, Knight can’t be called lazy or lacking for ambition. On the page, for all its silly frills, the film is more than a standard January drama, dumped for lack of anywhere else to put it. It’s a swing and a miss, a big risk that didn’t pay off.