Film Review: Serenity (2019)

Directed by: Steven Knight; Runtime: 106 minutes
Grade: D+

Plot twists have the ability to change the entire context of how a movie plays out, to such a degree that it makes discussing it nearly impossible without revealing what's involved with it. Here's the thing about twists, though: the film should succeed as its own experience without relying on a big revelation later down the line to justify why certain things may have seemed out of place, whether it's relationships between the characters or the tempo of the thrills. Serenity -- the latest thriller from the shrewd suspense writer of Locke and Dirty Pretty Things, Steven Knight -- feels like many things are off with its realism as soon as it embarks, where celebrated actors come across as embellished caricatures within an unexplainably false seaside town, leaving one confused by its repetitions and oddities. Once the twist gets involved and explains why things are the way they are, the damage has been done to the film's rhythm, failing to anchor what remains of the story with a misguided, cumbersome shift in perception.

Matthew McConaughey plays our intrepid hero, Baker Dill, a washed-up yet still talented fisherman who has been caught up in catching his "white whale" of a fish, Justice, for quite some time. Along with his wise first mate (Djimon Hounsou), they barely scrape by with the odd charter fishing trip for wealthy vacationers … and when they don't, Baker Dill uses his physical attractiveness to earn a little money with the local women, notably an attractive, caring woman close to his age named Constance (Diane Lane). Amid a rougher patch in his business, Baker Dill receives an unexpected visit from a mysterious woman (Anne Hathaway), someone with whom he had a vague romantic past. She arrives with a proposition: for him to do a dark deed involving her new husband (Jason Clarke) that would provide Baker Dill enough money to stop worrying about an influx of cash. Along the way, he's constantly bothered by a slim accountant type in glasses (Jeremy Strong), someone who seems to know way more about Baker Dill's everyday activities than he should.

None of the main four characters in Serenity are portrayed by actors without an Academy Award nomination, which makes the awkwardness of the performances here more than a little frustrating. McConaughey works with little more than brutish, obsessive traits as Baker Dill, reducing the Captain Ahab archetype to straightforward mania with a slight amount of military veteran distance in his temperament. Anne Hathaway saunters in as a prototypical femme fatale, a seductress with movie-star blonde hair and whispery, sultry vocal tones. Hounsou is a quasi-religious sage personified, and Diane Lane's little more than a concerned sugar momma who enjoys peering out at her boy toy from swung-open windows. In the beginning, with no grasp on the nature of the setting, they all come across as robotic archetypes of their necessary characters, as if a less-experienced writer has put into action the purpose-driven shells of their personalities without giving them the added depth of people.

Because of this, the idyllic seaside setting in Serenity never feels like much more than a mirage as Steven Knight attempts to build tension around Baker Dill, complimented by quirky visual transitions and odd sound choices that'll only make sense in the moment upon a second viewing. On its face, the front end of the story lacks purpose either as an examination of these characters or as an effective thriller, instead existing purely as the placement of moving parts leading up to a substantive reveal. Therefore, the open waters and coastal folks of the town aren't a convincing mirage, instead coming across like a knockoff version of a Christopher Nolan film, one that's actually guilty of the criticisms -- characters as devices; concept above narrative -- that he's been targeted for over the years. Therefore, the compulsion in Serenity is to simply wait for it to make sense, and in the process the suspense empties from what's happening around Baker Dill until Knight lands on the right time to pull back the curtain.

Yes, there's a real whopper of a revelation being reeled in by Serenity that I'm going to try my best to avoid … and luckily, it's the kind of twist that comes to the surface around the halfway point, so that the film can wrap around and respond to its high concept. Steven Knight uses the opportunity for certain characters to dive into existential thoughts, especially Baker Dill's reflections on his purpose on the island: whether he's destined to go through with murder, what forces brought him to the area in the first place, why he gives a damn about "Justice". This could be a probing mind-bender in theory and it does adequately decode the weirdness that occurs beforehand, but very few secondary layers of Knight's execution hold up to the scrutiny of a second thought, even going so far as to flip the uncertainty about the shallowness of the characters to being suspicious about them being as autonomous as they are. Simple questions are answered about the repetitiveness of prior events and the stiff, direct nature of the characters, but not in any way that deepens the island's inhabitants. Reality begins to dissipate, and caring about that becomes a struggle.

That isn't to say that Serenity doesn't attempt to give purpose to the twist, though. In fact, how and why events play out the way they do around Baker Dill hinges entirely on somber emotional purposes, centered on the absence of a parent from their child's life and the extent to which people will delve into artificial escapes from their worries. The headspace where Steven Knight was at while constructing this film had to have been an intriguing one, not unlike those responsible for the likes of Abre Los Ojos/Vanilla Sky, Total Recall, or even The Truman Show. What sets those apart from Serenity lies in the initial experience in absorbing what's going on, because the mounting tension and emotional fabric of those other works are independently engaging as they approach their revelations and choices made by the main characters. Serenity's clumsy neo-noir beginnings must be explained away to squeeze any drops of fulfillment out of the mental gymnastics that follow, and that's where those on the hook with Steven Knight's concept get away.

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