She walks into the bar, long blonde hair and large sparkling jewels. Surrounded by drinkers, fishers, and every other type of sad sack who’s surrendered on life, she is literally the diamond in the rough—and one with a poisoned edge aimed at the man who can never forget her. This is the early hook of Serenity that is unapologetically derivative of a legion of noirs from decades past, perhaps most notably Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), only now with Matthew McConaughey as Robert Mitchum and Anne Hathaway as Jane Greer. Well, I love noir and I like derision of its form, so when Steven Knight’s twisty post-modern reinvention leans into tradition, you can almost see a great thriller.
Almost, because what Serenity is really about—and which I can only hint at in this review without spoiling it—has less to do with smoke filled rooms and hazy regrets made contemptuous flesh. Rather it posits on a “twist” so brazenly misguided that the film’s marketing has wisely elected to hide the truth for fear of sending audiences howling with disbelief out of only the trailers. For, yes, Serenity is that strange beast which so spectacularly fails to stick the landing that its kneecaps have been pushed up to eye level.
Set on a tropical paradise located vaguely somewhere in the Caribbean, Serenity finds Iraq War vet Baker Dill (McConaughey) more sedated than serene about his life on Plymouth Island. Happy to have found a little corner of the world where no one else should be able to locate his home at the bottom of a bottle, he fishes in the day on his boat with an employee named Duke (Djimon Hounsou) and drinks himself into a stupor at night—with a frequent rendezvous in the bed of a neighbor (Diane Lane) at just about any hour. He’s pretty content with this arrangement until his old flame walks into that bar like an icy silhouette from a different, better 1940s melodrama. Her name’s Karen (Hathaway) and she was his high school sweetheart. Now she’s the trophy wife of a rich sadist called Frank (Jason Clarke). While wealthy, she’s in that special kind of hell where her husband asks her to speak in a babydoll voice while “daddy” inspects her body. If imperfections are found, off comes the belt.
Karen has a simple request for Dill: when Frank comes to the island in two days, she wants her ex to take hubby out fishing on his boat and then leave him for the sharks. In exchange, she’ll pay him $10 million. And for a good hour, that would appear to be the movie. But there are mysterious suggestions that more is at play, such as Jeremy Strong’s Reid Miller, a salesman who looks to be trading in more than fish equipment as he chases Baker across the island. And then there’s a question mark about how Karen’s son figures into all of this…
So the first act works fairly well for what it is: lingering shots on McConaughey’s unhurried, sunbaked drawl and Hathaway’s eviscerating stare. Filmmaker Steven Knight, who’s other projects include genre subversions like Eastern Promises (writer) and Locke (writer and director) moves his camera with the confidence of a storyteller who knows every noir beat but still likes to savor the propulsion they create. He and cinematographer Jess Hall spin the frame like a pinwheel when Karen walks into Dill’s gin joint, and later follows him over a cliffside dive like an inquisitive bird watching Alice tumble down the rabbit hole.
And while these elements will rely a little too much on cliché for some—most notably Hounsou who’s saddled, once again, with playing the noble conscience to the white protagonist—there is something comfortingly seedy about the central conflict. Like the granddaughter of Barbara Stanwyck, Hathaway delights in her cool blonde demeanor and husky monotone delivery, reminiscent of her previous work as Catwoman. And reunited with a fellow Nolan alumnus from Interstellar, she and McConaughey have a familiarity that lets them crackle with tangible heat, particularly in moments where they’re stealing glances that are equal parts lusty and murderous due to Clarke broadly bumbling cuckold walking between them like an unwanted guest from a worse movie.
However, all of this is undone by a twist posited on the desire to swing for the fences, even if the hands are empty and the bat’s whirling toward a confused ball boy. Serenity aims to deconstruct the classic “murder the femme fatale’s ball and chain” setup by offering humane reasons for both Karen’s fear of her husband and also Dill’s investment in her plight, which increasingly takes on a vaguely supernatural bent. The ways in which Dill is connected to Karen’s familial drama far exceed any reasonable expectation, even on the part of Dill, and it leaves McConaughey in a form of perpetual disbelief on his character’s behalf, and maybe his own after nearly two hours of strained incredulity at this slow-motion sinking.
The result is a film so desperate to be clever that it steers its well-worn boat off the charted course and into a watery grave of instant ignominy. A week after much handwringing over M. Night Shyamalan’s latest high-concept finale in Glass, Serenity offers an actual insulting headscratcher denouement that shatters to pieces upon scrutiny, and whose jagged leftovers will struggle to find an audience. Indeed, the film was moved from the warmer waters of an October release to January, but we suspect even in these doldrums it will be hard to lure any moviegoer into this net, lest it is to snicker at the gaping holes found in its best laid intentions.