It’s kind of a slow weekend for cinema but one film making the rounds is a feature that caught my attention in late-2018 simply because I wasn’t sure what to expect from it just by the previews alone. That film is “Serenity”, a new neo-noir thriller by director Steven Knight, a successful screenwriter who also directed the highly underrated 2013 drama “Locke”. “Serenity” promised intrigue and thrills without ever really showing its hand and the final result has had many critics, and viewers, calling it the first great bad movie of 2019. Undeterred I wanted to see what this film has to offer for myself so I made it my mission to give it my own take and determine if “Serenity” is truly the garbage pile some have claimed it to be or if it deserves more credit than it’s been getting. With that said this is my review of “Serenity”.
Not to be confused with the 2005 film of the same name spun off from the “Firefly” series, 2019’s “Serenity” focuses on veteran and fisherman Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) who lives on the fictional isolated island of Plymouth and heads out each morning with the goal of capturing a massive tuna he named Justice. When on land Dill drinks, swims and engages in sexual activity with a woman named Constance (Diane Lane) who pays him for their interactions. When Dill’s ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) arrives on the island she offers him a job, to take her abusive husband Frank (Jason Clarke) out on a fishing trip and to leave him for dead with the sharks. Dill ponders the idea after Karen reveals that she and Dill’s son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) has been negatively affected by the abuse. However, when a strange man named Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong) comes into the picture and reveals a surprising truth, Dill must decide which path he would like to take as everything he knows is drawn into question.
Say what you want about “Serenity” the performances honestly aren’t that bad. Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway hold this film on their shoulders providing very human characters that serve to hide the movie’s twist well. Some have said the film has an overly serious tone but for me I think that works in the movie’s favor as the emotional depth of the story comes out in full through the dialogue and interactions between its performers. Even amazing actors like Diane Lane and Djimon Hounsou hold their own in a film that, let’s be honest, is beneath their talent. However, it’s the performance by Jason Clarke that really turned me off. Clarke has proven he can act. He was a highlight performer in films like “Everest”, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “First Man”. So why does he keep wasting his talent like this? Movies like “Terminator: Genisys” and “Winchester” have proven that when Clarke is off, he’s really off and this performance as the abusive husband to Hathaway’s Karen is even more proof that when he’s not fully invested he can be one of the worst performers on screen. He completely overacts in this role and spoils the tone and mood of each scene he’s in. Compared to the investment of everyone else Clarke feels cartoonish which make’s this movie’s main villain extremely difficult to invest in or believe.
One thing I will say about “Serenity” is that despite what you may have heard it does have its admirable qualities. I enjoyed the backdrop and cinematography with the Island of Mauritius being a neat, pleasing setting for the film to serve as its island paradise. I did enjoy most of the characters and found myself surprisingly invested in the story at least before the big twist came around. More on that soon. “Serenity” has glimmers of a cool ideas with an intriguing murder plot and callbacks to classic stories like “The Old Man and the Sea” built in to the narrative. The visual aesthetic alone kept me hooked while the performances had me genuinely interested in these characters and who they were and how the story would play out. I dare say the first half of the movie is the best half and the one aspect of the movie truly worth experiencing because it has a balanced tone, fleshed out characters and motivations, and feels like it’s headed in a neat direction. However once things take a turn in the second half that’s where “Serenity” is bound to irritate because it introduces a twist that, for better or worse, turns everything upside down.
Now I’m not going to spoil that twist here. Chances are if you’re looking into seeing this film you’ve already heard that it’s a divisive twist at best. For me it definitely changed the complexion of “Serenity” enough to check out after its reveal. Whereas the first half of the story was a simple, stylish and fun ride to what felt like an inevitable conclusion, the twist changes not only the direction and motivations but also the tone and the feel of the world Steven Knight has created. Most of all it introduced questions about the state of reality that the characters have to manage. A good twist subverts viewer expectations while also properly building the story in a way that is fascinating and engaging. This twist might certainly give viewers something they don’t expect, but it does nothing to properly build on the story and even feels more like a cop out than a revolutionary idea. I can’t say it’s not inspired because, truthfully there are sparks of inspiration here. But the more I think on it the more I realize how cliché and overused this particular kind of twist is and it just doesn’t fit within the context of the story. It feels, forced and contrived taking all of the charm out of what was otherwise going to be a neat thriller about revenge and redemption.
The thing about “Serenity” is I found myself torn between liking it and despising it. I feel like the pieces are there to create a decent product, but the execution and the incorporation of a strange and out-of-nowhere twist that fails to meld with the narrative just spoiled it for me. I feel like there’s a lot of wasted potential. I can overlook a lot about this film because, even though it still wouldn’t be perfect even without the twist there are aspects that gripped me and drew me in right from the start that had me fully invested in what I was experiencing. But it doesn’t take long for the movie to ditch everything it has going for it in favor of shock value that doesn’t pay off. I wanted to like it. Hell, I even spent a few hours thinking over the movie trying to justify the twist in my own head and ALMOST managed to convince myself it wasn’t as bad as everyone says it is. But it is bad. It takes what I felt was destined to be a neat if generic thriller and turns it into something way over the top and something that it never needed to be.
I’m not going to sit here and say you shouldn’t watch “Serenity” because in truth maybe you should. This is one of those movies that you need to see to understand what the fuss is all about. It’s not unwatchable by any means. Like I said at least half the movie hints at a plot that could have made for something so much better than what we got. But once things go off the rails “Serenity” takes a dramatic turn and becomes a sinking ship. This is the kind of bad movie that proves that even the worst films can have their redeemable qualities. If nothing else “Serenity” is evidence of how an inspired idea can go completely, horribly wrong if applied to the wrong scenario. It’s been some time since we’ve had a so-bad-it’s-good film come around like “Serenity” and while it’s far from what we expected or deserved it’s certainly got us talking and makes us think. However instead of contemplating the deeper meaning of its twist or its story what we really find ourselves pondering is how a movie can start off so strong and lose its way is such epic fashion.