Baker Dill is a fisherman on small Plymouth Island, a place where everyone knows each other’s secrets. He is struggling mightily to make ends meet. One day, a woman from his past shows up with a proposition for him that would solve both of their problems: kill her abusive husband for $10 million. This is a pretty typical noir scenario: a troubled man sees his past come back in the form of a woman. But there is something profoundly odd just below the surface of Serenity. When its source is revealed, well, I am not sure it makes sense. This is a strange movie with pieces that fit very awkwardly, though that appears to have been intentional. It is not good, yet it is far too fascinating to be easily dismissed.
Baker is played by Matthew McConaughey as a full-on brooding hero. His ex is a blonde Anne Hathaway, looking like the definition of a femme fatale. Her husband, who she hopes Baker will dispose of, is played by Jason Clarke as an arrogant monster who lives to control people. This story, with these characters, taken at face value, almost comes off as a parody of the genre. It is stunningly unsubtle. However, as it turns out, that is part of the design.
Serenity (101 minutes without the end credits) has been made in an experimental mode by writer/director/producer Steven Knight. He sets up viewer expectations, tweaks them for a bit, then completely subverts them. This is not one of those stories where the rug suddenly gets pulled out from under you in the last act. Things seem off from literally the first shot. It has everything from silly dialogue to overacting to shots held for longer than seems necessary. Having seen the whole thing, I appreciate what he was attempting, even if he was eventually unsuccessful. He shows he is unafraid to take a big risk. Some will be captivated by his daring. Others will laugh at the absurdity.
McConaughey and Hathaway have very challenging jobs here. They have to give extremely heightened performances, even for a film noir. And they totally commit to them. I could certainly understand if someone wanted to argue they are not good in this movie. Their exaggerations are a part of the style Knight is messing around with. Good or bad, they fill these roles the way they had to. The most intriguing performance is by Jeremy Strong as a weird man who wanders the island in a suit, looking for Baker. His mannerisms are so precise, and so out of place, I could not look away when he was onscreen.
Serenity is not a safe production. I have a lot of admiration for a movie that takes a big swing. The studio, probably smelling negative reviews and poor word of mouth, bumped the release date back a few months, giving it little promotion (I have not seen a trailer for Serenity since the summer). This is not an easy product to promote. It is also difficult to talk about without spoiling anything. I cannot discuss its themes for fear of giving stuff away because they do not truly come out until all is exposed. Though I will say I found them to be somewhat problematic.
I have no idea how to rate Serenity. I respect its fearlessness while recognizing it is too ridiculous to actually work. There will be many movies this year and a lot of them will be boring and formulaic. This is neither of those things. Part of me wants to recommend it. Part of me wants to call it terrible. I will split the difference and go with: 2½ out of 5.
Matthew McConaughey as Baker Dill
Anne Hathaway as Karen Zariakas
Jason Clarke as Frank Zariakas
Djimon Hounsou as Duke
Diane Lane as Constance
Jeremy Strong as Reid Miller
Written and Directed by Steven Knight