By: 3-Deep (Four Beers) –
How does one describe Serenity? Honestly, I don’t know. For weeks, I’ve mulled over how one could — or, more specifically, should — try to the best of their human ability to explain the maddening experience of watching writer/director Stephen Knight’s sheer gonzo erotic thriller, an (unsuccessfully) mature, boundary-pushing sex-heavy mystery where all logic often ceases and absolute ludicrousness is considered the norm. It’s confounding, in every sense of the word. One cannot properly articulate the experience of watching Serenity and do it justice. As clichéd as it might be to say, it’s ultimately a film you need to see to believe. Because it’s just plain nuts.
Does that mean it’s a success? A failure? A triumph? A disaster? I’m more inclined to go negative than positive with Knight’s newest film, but I will admit: it did leave me thinking. And in a day-and-age where nothing really makes sense anymore and we have grown desensitized to pandemonium on a frequently daily basis, you got to give the movie credit for finding original ways to be insane. Because anyone can be crazy these days. We expect that. But it takes the right amount of insanity to knock us off our boat and lose us in a vast sea of complete, utter nonsense. Either intentional or not, that takes talent — and I must give Serenity credit wherever it is due.
Oh boy. How do I describe the plot of Serenity? Let’s start by going basic. If one can truly go basic when describe the plot of Serenity, of course. We’re introduced into the world of Serenity through the perspective of Baker Dill (sad-eyed Matthew McConaughey), a fisherman living out his Moby Dick fantasies of tracking down the one great, uncatchable fish which has escaped his dangling hook and, therefore, his grasp. On a luxurious and untraceable island where Baker is left only with his thoughts of lonesome morality to soothe him between liberal helping of drinks (insert “drinks like a fish” joke here), Baker is a man on a mission to catch the tuna humorously known as Justice, an elusive flounder who has constantly remained uncaught — much to Dill’s perpetual dismay — and seemingly involved in his fractured relationship with his son. It also probably destroyed Baker’s marriage, stole his wallet, wrecked his credit score, and placed a wedge between him and his siblings, because while there are certainly plenty of fish in the sea, it’s only this one that will bring peace to this unhinged man of the sea, who travels day-after-day out to sea with the sole mission of finding and, presumably, killing the fish that did him wrong.
But there’s one thing the fish hasn’t taken from Baker Dill: his libido. For when he is not making his sworn mission to catch and destroy Justice known to the great white sea, he is a part-time prostitute with seemingly only one client on his list: Constance (Diane Lane), a wealthy widow (?) who only serves as a means through which our Baker Dill can acquire funds for his fishing. Or, as he describes it, he is a “hooker with a hook,” and he needs to make his green to get back into the blue somehow. In the surreal world of Serenity, one does that by becoming a prostitute.
But as Baker Dill continues to wallow in his sadness, swallow drink after drink after drink, follow Justice to the ends of the Earth, and gigolo himself to a lonely woman with money to spare, our protagonist is reacquainted with Karen Zariakas (Anne Hathaway), a female fatale (or sorts) who needs Baker to get rid of her husband, the abusive, intolerable Frank Zariakas (Jason Clarke) through one of his fishing expositions. For a couple millions of dollars, Karen wants Baker to take Frank into the ocean, get him good and drunk while catching tuna, and then push him overboard so that he can become shark food and never be seen or heard from again. But Baker isn’t willing to bite. It will take some convincing before he gets caught up as an accessory to this particular crime. And in the process of all that, Baker Dill discovers some strange truths.
To give away anything more would be a sin. And frankly, I don’t know how I can describe this movie any longer without sounding like a complete lunatic. So, let’s break down the positives.
Serenity is a weird little spell of a film, but it fully commits to its insanity. You gotta respect that. There are so many movies out there who don’t “commit to the bit,” as it were. That’s not the case here. Stephen Knight is fully invested in his strange, sexualized, fishing murder mystery drama-thriller. He knows that if you’re going to fail, you might as well fail big. And he isn’t afraid to take a risk and see how it turns out. This is not a movie that’s going to win over the general public. Even the most charitable audiences will likely be turned off by its absolutely nonsensical creative decisions. But at a time where every medium continues to feel fleeting and forgettable, Serenity gnaws at your marveled brain and refuses to let go. I’m fully engulfed in its lore, and I don’t really know how to make heads-or-tails of it. But at least I haven’t forgotten it.
Additionally, Matthew McConaughey continues his reputation for picking questionable film projects, but he also prolongs his history of providing thoughtful, nuanced performances in films that don’t likely deserve his talents. There is a reoccurring element of spirituality in his work of late. In genre films like Interstellar and The Dark Tower, as well as the mopey drama The Sea of Trees, for instance, it’s apparent that middle-aged McConaughey is thinking about the universe and how to communicate his deep-seated feelings of anguish and dismay in a world that can be both hollow and meaningful, privileged and empty. It’s a weirdly specific focus, but it has helped the actor craft some authentic and personal performances, and similar to Knight, his commitment to the project makes it an easier sell than it otherwise would be. He doesn’t seem entirely certain what to make of this project, but that confusion and growing concern echo our confusion and growing concern — particularly for what happened to McConaughey’s promising resurgence — and it makes Serenity feel a little more accessible and investing — if that’s even possible in here.
It’s almost impossible to get a proper read of Serenity. Everything about the first half of this film seems wrong. The acting is stilted and unnatural, the dialogue is egregiously, hilariously wonky (especially for a writer as acclaimed and celebrated as Stephen Knight, who previously penned Peaky Blinders, Eastern Promises, and Locke — which the well-recognized screenwriter directed previous to Serenity), to name a few of his past credits, and everything about the film feels … off.
Nothing is quite clicking. Everything feels a little out-of-whack — to say the very least. But then, when a revelation is made midway in the movie, you realize: maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s meant to be some kind of fantastical fantasy, completely without proper sense or ingrained logic? Maybe it doesn’t want to abide by any particular rules (a notion that ties back to the film for reasons I cannot explain without diving straight into spoiler territory)? Maybe its weakness are secretly its strengths, and everything it does wrong is actually being done right in its own principles? Perhaps Knight’s film deserves more credit than it earned at first. But before any comparisons to The Truman Show are made, the lingering thought still remains, “Well, even if that’s the point, what exactly is Serenity trying to accomplish anyhow? What does it say?”
The film tackles the nature of trauma, the horrors of abuse, and the troubled relationship between violence and the media, particularly in the youth of America (I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense out-of-context, but again, spoilers). It has a lot on its docket — more than it first appears.
And I’m glad that Stephen Knight is really going for it with this film. He’s making an honest effort to go wide-thinking in a major way, an approach that suggests you’re either willing to take the film at full value or you’re simply flying out into the shark-infested waters, never catching up again. I can always appreciate a filmmaker who takes such bold, uncompromising risks. And I do wonder if Serenity is a film that will be appreciated more over time, either for reasons deserved or not. But in this moment, based on my viewing of the film at this point in time, I have to realize that Serenity doesn’t really work for me. Despite its bold approach, it ultimately falls a bit short.
Serenity is using dated and knowingly clichéd film noire tropes to talk about current-day problems, and it results in a film that’s more alienating than illuminating. It raises too many questions about itself to properly talk about serious talking points made throughout the film — topics that deserve to be discussed in a frank and serious way but are somewhat trivialized in a film that abides to no sense of reason. It is a film that’s trying to comment on real-world topics in a larger-than-life way, but it comes across a little too singular and specific for its own particular good. The silly creative choices made throughout the film make it more perplexing than engaging, filling the movie with a sense of goofiness that makes the dark topics feel unearned.
In short, Serenity is a film that intentionally doesn’t bring one a sense of peace, despite what its title might suggest, but it also doesn’t find any sense of comfort in its nonconformity. It’s a mad movie that doesn’t quite connect and it doesn’t really bring anything constructive to its wild ideas. But again, at least Stephen Knight is willing to make something that’s this paradoxical.
Then there’s the matter of female portrayal in Serenity. And as a man, I don’t want to dive into this matter too much because I’m by no means an authority. But there’s definitely something that is very uncomfortable about how women are sexuality in Serenity. Sexuality in Serenity, in general, is perhaps the weirdest factor. It’s intentionally or unintentionally heightened in its sexual dynamics, and the nature in which sex plays a factor in the film is inherently illogical – perhaps more than anything inside the movie, honestly. But even when knowing what Serenity is trying to accomplish, there’s something about it that feels gross and uncomfortable. Diane Lane, in particular, plays a weird part in the proceedings, and I would be curious to know how exactly they sold an actress of this talent and caliber on a part that seems so degrading and beneath her.
And Anne Hathaway’s performance seems especially wayward, unsure if it should become less realistic or more grounded throughout the course of the film given the heavy-lifting the Oscar-winning actress is expected to provide with such a complex character in the scheme of the film. It’s a demanding performance, in several ways, and there’s no denying that Hathaway is a great actress, but she can’t quite channel what Stephen Knight is hoping to accomplish (whatever that might possibly be) on a scene-by-scene basis. But I don’t fault her at all. That is a herculean task.
Should I give it a fourth beer? I don’t know. It’s not quite “three-beer quality,” I don’t think, but giving it a fourth beer feels unfair. Screw it. Let’s give it one more beer. Goodness knows, Baker Dill is quite a drinker, so it’s certainly not going to waste if I throw it in his wavering direction.
Serenity is an oddity, to say the least. It defies the normal conventions of film reviewing, making it impossible to grade on any traditional scale. Even though I’m technically giving Serenity a grade, it’s by no means a rigid score. Serenity is an overblown hodgepodge of silly madness that will leave me perplexed for days upon months upon years to come, I imagine, and I won’t stop thinking about it anytime soon. That’s more than I can say for some movies that I genuinely like and even love. It’s by no means a hook, line, and sinker, but it did hook me in, refusing to let go. It’s not a sturdy ship, but it’s not dead in the water either. Simply put, it’s a kooky ride. Hold on tight if you can. Because if you don’t, you will wind up lost in Justice’s endless blue waters.
Serenity (2019) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Matthew McConaughey gets butt-ass naked.
Take a Drink: every time our characters are lost at sea — literally or metaphorically.
Take a Drink: anytime “Justice” is uttered or referenced.
Take a Drink: anytime a character says “the rules.” Two drinks if it’s The Rules saying it.
Take a Drink: for every non-realistic sex scene found throughout this silly nonsense movie.
Take a Drink: anytime Anne Hathaway calls someone “Daddy.”
Do a Shot: when the big plot-twist reveal is finally made.
Do a Shot: during that weird scene where Matthew McConaughey is swimming naked with his son at the bottom of the sea, beckoning him in some odd recreation of The Creation of Adam.