Serenity is: A) an early contender for the worst movie of 2019; B) a bonkers attempt at beachy noir starring Matthew McConaughey as a fisherman named Baker Dill; C) a bizarrely perfect companion piece to The Book of Henry; D) all of the above.
The answer is, of course, D – all of the above. The new film from writer and director Steven Knight (Locke) is probably another 80 things in addition to those descriptions, including being the single most baffling movie to exist since The Snowman – and that’s before you even get to the huge plot twist. And while all of this sounds like a warning against seeing Serenity (which has nothing to do with the Joss Whedon film of the same name), it’s the kind of mystifying movie that must be seen to be believed.
The basic premise of Serenity would have you believe that this is not a particularly interesting film: Baker Dill (yes, truly) lives on a small island called Plymouth, where he struggles to get by as a fisherman-for-hire who takes tourists out to catch the kind of fish they can write home about. As Baker grows increasingly obsessed with landing a monster-sized tuna he calls “Justice,” he’s haunted by fuzzy memories of his past: An ex (Anne Hathaway), their son, and a tour in the army that left him with so much post-traumatic stress that he abandoned his kid and fled to Plymouth. Baker’s days revolve around taking drunken tourists out to sea, trying (and failing) to catch Justice, drinking, and hooking up with a local woman (Diane Lane, for some reason) who throws Baker some cash after their trysts. (She also has a black cat that’s always wandering off from home, which is not as important as the movie would suggest.)
But Baker’s life takes a turn when his ex, Karen, shows up with a proposition: She’ll pay Baker $10 million to take her physically and sexually abusive crook of a husband (Jason Clarke) out to sea, get him drunk, and feed him to the sharks. One might take this as a potential point of interest – a throwback to the seedy thrillers of the ’90s, or a Wild Things riff, at the very least – but reader, rest assured that this is the least fascinating thing about Serenity. Unfortunately, to elaborate on the doozy of a plot twist would spoil your delight in just how insane this whole thing is. What can be said is that Serenity takes a hard left turn somewhere in the middle, transforming this movie from astonishingly awful to downright mystifying. It’s difficult to say whether the twist makes the hour that preceded it better or worse, though it justifies some of Knight’s odder choices.
For instance: The acting in the first half of the movie is so incredibly stilted, as if these are not people, but a computer’s understanding of how people speak and behave. The camera randomly whips and pivots around Baker in what could approximate a “stylistic” choice, if that style belonged to a 10-year-old Michael Bay. Hathaway’s Karen is one of the worst depictions of an abuse victim in recent memory, and spends much of her screen time either trying to get Baker to murder her alcoholic, violent husband or trying to get in his pants by reminding him of how he took her virginity when she was just 16 and he was much older (although the script stops short of saying exactly how old he was at the time). Karen and Baker’s chemistry is, for lack of a better term, kind of grotesque, topped only by a baffling sex scene which becomes even more astounding in hindsight, after the big twist is laid out. Knight clearly wanted to make something akin to noir – hence Hathaway’s role as the wildly exaggerated, sexed-up dame in distress; instead, he made a film that is nearly impossible to define. An achievement? In some sense, sure. There are a couple of eccentric elements that lend the film a weird, almost fantastical dimension: Baker has some inexplicable, quasi-psychic connection with his estranged son (which is inevitably explained). There’s also a mysterious man with a briefcase tailing Baker around, trying to get a word with him about something that’s apparently very important (it’s… not?). That man is played by Jeremy Strong, who is absolutely phenomenal on HBO’s Succession. He’s not bad in Serenity, per se; rather his talents, like those of Lane and Hathaway, feel horribly wasted. Strong’s character is another one of Knight’s odd choices: To say that he’s exceedingly eccentric would be an understatement. The guy is like a walking assortment of quirk cliches.
With all of this in mind, it seems obvious that Serenity is a bad movie. It certainly cannot be categorized as good, but “bad” also feels reductive. It’s that special brand of baffling – a collection of choices so astonishing, bewildering, and brazen that it demands to be experienced, with a group of friends, if possible. Maybe the perfect analogy for Serenity is that morbidly satisfying feeling you get when you snake a clogged shower drain and pull out an awe-inspiring and repulsive mass of hair – the texture of which can only be described, somehow, as gelatinous. It’s surprising, and entertaining (in its own messed-up way), and it forces your face to contort into shapes you didn’t even know it could make in response to the hilarious awfulness of it all. Mostly, you just can’t stop saying, “What the heck is this?!”