Steven Knight’s new film Serenity truly has to be seen to be believed. This bizarre and very high concept thriller with an impressive cast could only be described as spectacularly strange. Full of ludicrous twists and turns, Serenity is pretty much incomprehensible from the start, beginning with a scene early on with a sweaty Matthew McConaughey willing to kill a man over a giant tuna. From there, things grow more strange by the minute. I wish I could say I saw the twist coming, I didn’t. However, the parameters of the twist are clear in the movies painfully obvious opening shot; this film likely isn’t going to be what it seems on the surface. In order to fully examine this film, I see no way around spoiling the film. So, you’ve been warned, if you don’t want the film spoiled for you, go see it and then come back and read this review.
The film opens with a shot that plunges into a boy’s eye. We see McConaughey on a boat named Serenity in a thoroughly 90’s style opening title card. McConaughey plays Baker Dill, a fishing boat captain who takes tourists out deep sea fishing. His first mate, Duke (Djimon Hounsou), has reservations about Dill’s obsession with a giant tuna named, wait for it, Justice. In the film’s opening minutes, Dill pulls a knife on the two tourists and threatens to kill them if they get in the way of his quest to catch this tuna which has been hooked on the line. After it gets away, Dill is visibly shaken.
As the film progresses we realize that Dill is just flat out obsessed with catching this tuna for reasons we don’t ever find out in a way that’s satisfying. He moves about his day-to-day life on Plymouth Island. He sleeps with a local woman (Diane Lane) for money, drinks more rum than any human could possibly stand and jumps off rocks naked. Oh yeah, there are also super odd and unintentionally hilarious pop-ins from a mysterious man with a briefcase played by Jeremy Strong.
Then, when Dill’s ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) comes to Plymouth Island with her abusive, rich and alcoholic husband Frank (Jason Clarke), the plot gets crazy. Karen offers Dill $10 million to take Frank out on his boat and kill him. This becomes the story going forward with small glimpses of his obsession with Justice. Still with me? Good, cause it only gets weirder.
In an effort to not to babble on too long, I’ll cut to the chase. It is revealed towards the end of the film that Dill’s existence is not real, and he is a character in his son’s video game, making sense of the films first shot of the camera panning into his son Patrick’s eyes. Patrick is holed up in his room while Frank (who’s really a construction worker and not a millionaire) is, off-screen, savagely beating Karen and threating her life. Patrick is a precocious teenager who is coding and designing his own video game. Dill in real life was a Marine who was killed in combat and the video game is Patrick’s way of keeping his dad alive and escape from the reality of his situation.
There you have it. Is Serenity one of the most bizarre films ever made? Possibly. Knight’s script for the films dives into this with no hesitation. I’m not sure whether Serenity is hackneyed and too high-concept for its own good, or if it’s actually a brilliant piece of surrealist filmmaking. Something has to be said at the very minimum about the ambitious nature behind the film.
It feels to me that Serenity is bound for cult classic status. I’m sure many think-pieces will be written about the film. I feel as though to really examine this film one must see it twice. As a piece of filmmaking on its own, it is a complete and total disaster. The performances in the movie seem like the best parts were cut out, which ultimately reflects the way this film is edited. Cutting from one seemingly unfinished scene to the next, Serenity never feels cohesive or put together in a way that makes sense. The editing is bizarre that it almost feels like an intentional creative choice. Is it sloppy because Patrick is creating his video game and it isn’t finished yet? I don’t think we’ll never know.
McConaughey’s performance is borderline silly, as are all of the performances. Every character archetype is heightened for dramatic effect and absolutely none of it works. Jason Clarke is particularly painful to watch. Most of Knight’s filmmaking tactics border on exploitative particularly scenes where McConaughey’s bare butt is on camera for extended periods of time. Knight’s visual storytelling feels uninspired with directly conflicts with the ambition of the story he’s crafted.
The consequences of Knight’s decisions are unintentional laughter and confusion on how we are supposed to treat this film. Is it a masterpiece of bonkers storytelling? Or, is it just a total failure on any filmmaking level. It’s hard to say. What can be said is that I was very much entertained by this film even when I shouldn’t have been. There will be proponents in the “so bad it’s good” club, and there will be those on the opposite side. In the end, it’s hard to call Serenity a total failure due to the sheer entertainment value of it’s “out there” nature. I don’t think I’ve been this confused about my opinion of a film in a very long time. Time will tell if that’s good or bad, and the same sentiment applies to this bananas movie.
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