From director Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, Locke, Allied), Serenity follows Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), a fishing boat captain, as he is approached by ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) with a request that he kill her abusive second husband, Frank (Jason Clarke). Displaying a telepathic link to his son, Patrick, Baker decides to put aside his fishing goals and aid son and former wife. Events then take an enormous turn, as Baker learns that his entire reality is not as it seems.
It is clear from the synopsis above that there is something of a twist at the heart of Serenity. This twist renders full investigation of the film difficult, lest we give it away. Suffice to say that it is one of the dumbest ideas ever executed on film. Not only is the twist strongly hinted at in the first shot of the film, but it is absolutely incoherently applied.
The most we can say is there should be, literally, not a single frame without the Baker character present. Once the concept behind the film is known, virtually none of the scenes in the film will make any sense whatsoever. That this is the same writer who also wrote the outstanding David Cronenberg film Eastern Promises is surprising.
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When a twist is done well – such as in The Sixth Sense – two things notably occur: first, any plot holes or logic gaps tend to melt away in importance (how on earth did Bruce Willis not notice no one had spoken to him at all in over a year?); second there is usually a desire to watch the film again to see all of the clues to that eventual reveal. Serenity elicits nether response. It is simply dull, and the only real coherent clue is that opening shot. The events of the film are not consistent with the reality of the reveal, yet the film lives for its twist. There is little story here beyond ‘watch out, we’re about to turn this on its head’.
Performances are thin parodies of archetypes. Again – and this is the last time I’ll mention it – the twist at the heart of the story may be the reasoning behind that; but, in isolation, no one is portrayed with any depth. Hathaway’s character comes off as an airhead; Jason Clarke’s as a comedy villain (not funny, but deeply clichéd as an abusive man – and an extremely bland screen presence), while McConaughey clearly saw the tone implied in the pitch, and interpreted it as ”play it ‘grizzled'”. There is no inner life to the character – it is every tough, quiet, uptight male you’ve ever seen in this type of film. Whilst Clarke is never the most thrilling of screen presences, the other two are capable of so much more.
McConaughey signed on to a film announced as a ‘sexy noir’ – in itself a hilarious moniker to attach to anything. This may explain his approach to the role, but it also leads to an extraordinary attempt to push more adult content where it doesn’t fit. A sex scene with Hathaway is reminiscent of The Red Shoe Diaries – that’s not a compliment. We get, in addition, butt shots from McConaughey that serve no purpose other than to add such content to the film to justify its initial pitch.
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This is certainly one of those films that may end up with a cult following, finding itself watched ironically in a so-bad-it’s-good way. The two leads – both Oscar winners – are not only operating way beneath their talent levels, but making character decisions that simply leech any audience empathy from the situation. Baker is impenetrable, and Karen is deeply dim. Whilst there may be a certain humour in looking at a film with multiple pointless characters that could have been written out completely, and plot decisions that are breath-takingly stupid, the telling of the tale isn’t enjoyable.
Serenity will be remembered – and boy, will it be remembered – as a career nadir for almost everyone involved. A boring plot, idiotic story turn, zero character work, and dull, disengaged performances all-round leave this bereft of much in the way of redeeming features. The film’s nice cinematography is its sole strength, though the locations render it a difficult film to screw up in that regard.
In some respects, this would be a better film if everyone involved knew they were making crap. A more nodding and winking tone may have pitched this entirely into the cult following category. As it is, Serenity is 106 minutes of your life you’ll never get back. Avoid.
Serenity is out in cinemas right now. Check out the trailer below and leave your thoughts in the comments.