Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Movie Review: Serenity

Serenity * ½ / *****
Directed by: Steven Knight.
Written by: Steven Knight.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey (Baker Dill), Anne Hathaway (Karen Zariakas), Diane Lane (Constance), Djimon Hounsou (Duke), Jason Clarke (Frank Zariakas), Jeremy Strong (Reid Miller), Rafael Sayegh (Patrick).
Everyone involved in Serenity is immensely talented. Writer/director Steven Knight has directed one great movie (Locke) and written a few others (Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things). The cast has two Oscar winners, and a couple of nominees, and strong people in it besides. I have always loved film noir – and the sun baked film noir can great as well – a way to visually contrast all the darkness of the story. Assemble all these elements again, and I would still be excited. But boy, is Serenity a bad movie. In a way, you have to give it some credit for the sheer audacity of what it attempts – but the resulting movie is bonkers in all the wrong ways. As I mentioned when I reviewed Glass a couple weeks ago, the reason why people remember the great twist endings Shyamalan has come up with is because they are very hard to pull off. When you try for one and fail, the result is something like Serenity – which is just plain goofy. (Warning, there will be spoilers below, but I’ll mark them off).
The setup of Serenity is pure noir. Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is an Iraq war veteran, hiding on a small tropical island, where he barely scraps by as a fisherman, and taking tourists out on his boat alongside first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou). He isn’t exactly happy, but he’s getting by – and surviving, has a friends with benefits situation with Constance (Diane Lane), and is basically just letting life go by. Onto his island steps a woman from his past – Karen (Anne Hathaway) – the mother of Baker’s child, Patrick, that he hasn’t seen in years. Karen left Baker years ago for another man – Frank (Jason Clarke) – who is rich and mob connected in Miami, and ever since he has been abusing her. Karen has a proposition for Baker – when her husband arrives in a few days, she wants Baker to take him out on his boat, and just let him fall in – an accident – to be cleaned up by the sharks. For his trouble, he’ll get $10 million – and perhaps get to see his son again. On the island there is also the very strange Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong) – a bespecled man who is constantly trying to get a hold of Baker, and always a step slow.
The early scenes of Serenity are intriguing – not good exactly, but interesting. It’s clear that Knight has studied film noir, and he is trying to give his dialogue that old school noir ring to it – you know the way no one really talks, but it sounds great in the mouths of Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum or Barbara Stanwyck. It is a stylized dialogue, and some of the actors do better with it than others – McConaughey is fine, Hathaway is awkward and Diane Lane absolutely nails it. When he swaggers onto the island, Clarke is also quite good – he seems born to play this type of role, and he gives probably the best performance in the movie – although he has the advantage of being a one note lout.
Spoilers Ahead – Kind of. I don’t spoil the twist, but I do discuss it.
But about two-thirds of the way into the movie, the movie pulls out its big twist. It has been hinted at throughout the film that something is not quite right here – there is something more going on than a simple film noir. If you really wanted to have a generous reading of the film, this twist could even explain all the awkward dialogue, and even some of the more awkward performance moments, as if Knight put them in their deliberately. But that would be a pretty generous reading. And the twist brings up some other questions about the plot that given the latest twist seem even more implausible.
End Spoilers
Basically, from the point of the twist to the end of the movie, Serenity becomes increasingly ridiculous and impossible to take seriously, even as Knight and his cast still take it very, very seriously. I’m not even sure what to make of the final scenes in the movie, which basically make no sense if you spend time thinking about them.
So, yes, Serenity is a bad movie. A really bad movie. But it’s the type of bad movie that talented people sometimes make. A blander, less ambitious filmmaker than Knight never would have attempted this film, and very well would have made a better film, but also could have easily made a film you would forget as soon as it ends. You won’t forget Serenity, that’s for sure.

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