SERENITY: Lonely Baker Featured

I have decided to do something a little different for this review. Typically, I avoid including spoilers in my reviews. However, what makes SERENITY interesting to discuss, nevermind see, cannot be explored without spoilers. Thus, I have change my approach. I will begin below with a shorter spoiler-free review section before giving away crucial plot details in a spoiler-filled section. Then, I will discuss the movie a bit more fully in the next section with an emphasis on how those spoilers impact the narrative before closing in my typical way with a summary of my feelings.

So, if you are spoiler averse, read until the clearly marked spoiler section, then skip to “Wrap it Up!” However, to get the most out of this review, I really recommend taking in the whole thing, spoilers and all.

SERENITY: Baker and Karen
Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway cannot dim their bright and honeyed light in a moment from SERENITY. (Courtesy of Aviron Pictures)

The Idea Behind SERENITY

On small temperate island in an unspecified locale, fisherman Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is not making a living as a fisherman. An obsessive hunt for a massive tuna he calls Justice has largely derailed both his tourism boat trips and his own sport fishing. He manages to keep himself afloat — no pun intended — with money from his sugar mommy Constance (Diane Lane). But as she correctly but harshly points out, he is pretty much a prostitute these days.

His first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) has become increasingly exasperated. He only quits because he believes Duke has become bad luck since Duke’s wife dad. Now alone, Baker starts burning the candle at both ends. He fishes for swordfish at night and flips that money immediately for booze and supplies. He drinks himself to sleep, then wakes up early, and chases Justice most of the daylight hours. Next, a brief nap, perhaps a visit to Constance’s literally gauzy bedroom, and it is back out for swordfish.

Into this already untenable situation comes Karen Zariakas (Anne Hathaway), Dill’s apparent first love. Yes, Hathaway and McConaughey are 13 years apart. Yes, there is a reference to them waiting until she was legal. No, you should not consider them having the same age gap in the movie as they do in real life because, well, they would have gotten married when she was 18 and he was 31.

Anyway, she has found him because she needs a favor. She needs her husband, Frank (Jason Clarke), dead and thinks her ex is just the man to do it. If Dill does the deed, she promises him millions in untraceable cash and the chance to see his son once again.

SERENITY: Baker Dill
Matthew McConaughey looks out upon the wreck of SERENITY and despairs. (Courtesy of Aviron Pictures)

The Writer-Director behind SERENITY

Writer-director Steven Knight has a mixed history for me. At times, I have really liked his work. He wrote and directed the “almost all in a car” Tom Hardy acted drama LOCKE which I adore. His directing debut REDEMPTION (which should have remained under the moniker HUMMINGBIRD) was a pleasant surprise in the Jason Statham smashes skulls genre. His scripts for DIRTY PRETTY THINGS and EASTERN PROMISES were excellent.

On the other hand, he also wrote THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB, BURNT, and SEVENTH SON. So they are not all homeruns.

Here, he obviously delights in deploying the tropes of seaside noir films. The slow ebb of time. The sweaty nightmare naps. The light streaming through blinds in an otherwise dark room. The sense that our hero never had a chance. The femme fatale that is smart enough to get things in motion but might just got swallowed up in the undertow — pun intended here — herself.

His best work on the film is wordless. The camera reveals and revels in the reality that living in paradise is no protection from pain.

His script though? It proves far less than that.

SERENITY: Karen and Frank
Jason Clarke visually assesses Anne Hathaway. Yes, that’s what’s happening here, and it is every bit as gross as it sounds. (Courtesy of Aviron Pictures)

The Quick Spoiler Free Review

At its heart, SERENITY is a sleepy noir. Think the Denzel Washington vehicle OUT OF TIME with significantly less pep. McConaughey unravels well on-screen, even if his lines become increasingly about him shouting to the sky. Hathaway gives good femme fatale, especially in the eyes. Alas, the script largely fails her too.

Amongst the supporting players, Hounsou brings depth to a thankless role. But I wish I could see this man in some material worthy of his talent and charisma because, oof, it has been a long, long time.

Clarke, on the other hand, is noxious. So noxious, in fact, it becomes difficult to understand why there is any kind of moral dilemma at all in what Karen has asked for. He is an alcoholic, sadistically abusive, openly cruel, and a womanizer who at one point openly requests to be directed to where the underage sex workers are offering their wares. I’m not sure if its due to the script or not, but Clarke’s Frank is so horrible killing him feels like an act of collective self-defense. When the intended victim is that hideous, it robs the situation of any of its drama.

Then comes the spoilers.

SERENITY: Baker and Constance
Diane Lane and Matthew McConaughey present a vision of a wholly healthy relationship in SERENITY. (Courtesy of Aviron Pictures)

The Spoiler Revealed Section

Those of you seeking to avoid advanced knowledge of SERENITY’s twists and turns, now is the time to jump overboard.

The rest of you? Let’s get into this.

So a lot of what feels cliché and just…off about SERENITY in its first 2/3rds can be laid at the feet of a twist, if you are feeling generous. See, Baker, Karen, Duke, Frank, Constance, and the rest are not real. They exist in a video game. So when the tuna looks like a video graphic, well, maybe you could consider that a hint.

As the story continues, we get more details. Baker is a visual avatar of the game creator Patrick’s dad, a hero soldier who died overseas. Karen is said creator’s mom; Frank, his vicious stepfather. The more abusive real-life Frank has become, the farther Patrick has retreated into his game. But now, now Patrick has decided to change the rules. No longer is the game about catching a giant tuna; now, it is about killing Frank. However, Patrick did too good a job writing the code, so the game is rebelling against him. All of this leads to: Baker’s resistance, Duke’s interference, all the island’s residents reminding Dill to catch his prize fish, and the squirrely Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong) chasing Baker around the island trying to warn him about something.

Eventually, however, Miller turns and decides to aid Baker in killing Frank. Once it happens in the game, Patrick turns around and does the same in real life.

SERENITY: Duke and Baker
Djimon Hounsou confront Matthew McConaughey in a scene from SERENITY. (Courtesy of Aviron Pictures)

The Spoiler Discussed Section

The twist is, obviously, beyond bananas. Moreover, save for a 360 camera move the film employs a few times and intercut scenes of “Baker’s” son — really Patrick — locked in his bedroom and losing himself in his computer, there is almost no hints about it.

However, I am typically a guy who is here for a massive twist. I don’t even need a fully constructed prelude to it. You hit me with a great reversal, and I’ll forgive some logic leaps and plotholes, no problem.

However, the twist has to matter. It has to shake the world of the movie. Despite how massive and weird SERENITY’s “it’s all a video game” reveal is, though, it fails to do that. The movie feels the same pre and post-twist. The stakes don’t feel higher, the world does not seem more incredible. It began as a sun-soaked slow noir, and it stays that way until its discordant happy ending.

There could be some interesting questions of morality to be explored in this platform: the game “giving” Patrick permission to kill his stepdad, the idea that even video game characters’ morality is resistant to being recoded just like ours, the idea of altering someone’s inherit outlook, and so on. However, the movie wrestles with exactly zero of these concerns.

Without the twist, I probably would have labeled it a mildly diverting noir that has some decent performances but does little interesting with the setting or subject matter. With the twist, I feel so much more disappointed. To take that big a risk and then use it so blandly is a far bigger crime than just making a sort of slow film.

This is Baker Dill’s truck. I needed one more image here and the truck is important, so… (Courtesy of Aviron Pictures)

That’s a Wrap!

SERENITY often looks pretty, and I’m not just referring to the numerous attractive people on-screen. Knight is increasingly asserting himself as someone with a very adaptable visual palette who, hopefully, will breakthrough soon by melding that with his own sensibilities to deliver a style uniquely his own.

However, it is just not very good. And the spoilers (which I am not actually revealing here). Look, I’m not mad at the spoilers, I’m mad how little they mean. This movie seems to have a sense of boldness in its heart, but it is just an island mirage.

It has been said that, much like golf is a good walk ruined, fishing is a nice afternoon on a boat ruined. To apply that to SERENITY, the spoilers render it a mediocre noir ruined.

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