It’s never a good sign when your movie gets pushed back twice before finally being released in the doldrums of January. But that’s exactly what happened to existential thriller Serenity, as it went from a late-September slot, to a mid-October one, to finally the one it just settled on. There can be reasons both good and bad for a studio to delay the release, be it reshoots or extra time in the editing room, but I’m willing to guess Aviron Pictures simply gave up on this being both critically beloved or financially lucrative and simply opted to dump it on us now without having to promote it hardly at all. And frankly, I don’t blame them, because this one is a real stinker. Which is actually surprising, given the pedigree both in front of and behind the camera. You’ve got Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway reuniting for the first time since 2014’s Interstellar, you’ve got the supporting talents of Diane Lane, Jason Clarke and Djimon Hounsou, and it’s written and directed by Steven Knight, who had previously helmed the fantastic one-man show Locke starring Tom Hardy. And then it begins, and it becomes evident that it’s simply the misguided effort of a single creator that couldn’t keep the surreality underlying the plot from becoming outright absurd and laughable. I’ve heard some say it’s this year’s The Book of Henry, which, if you didn’t see, was utterly ludicrous without knowing it and virtually halted the career of writer-director Colin Trevorrow, who had already done Jurassic World and was at the time still lined up to direct Star Wars Episode IX. I have to say, I can’t argue with that comparison. What I will say though, is that the heady themes and plot devices on display here are even more far-fetched and arbitrary, leaving virtually all of the actors at the mercy of a ridiculous script. Which is a shame, as I remain a pretty big fan of Knight’s previous work. Though it can’t be emphasized more just how big of a step down this is, on every conceivable filmmaking level.
Set on the fictitious island of Plymouth, Serenity focuses on fisherman Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), who spends his days escorting tourists out to sea on his boat and striving to catch the elusive mega tuna he’s named Justice. One day, he is greeted by his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway), who informs him that she is vacationing on the island with her new husband Frank (Jason Clarke). Before Dill can chalk their meeting up to coincidence, Karen asks for him to murder Frank, he being ruthlessly abusive to both her and her and Dill’s son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh). Karen offers him an exorbitant amount of money to do so, but Baker accepts solely for the morality of the situation. Meanwhile, a mysterious businessman Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong) struggles to track down Dill, with the kind of information that could change everything.
It’s difficult to fully analyze this film without breaking down the twist that comes about three-quarters of the way in, coming with the advent of Strong’s character into the story. While it may make sense on paper, believe me when I say that it feels completely unnecessary in execution, and will only raise more questions than it answers. Not to mention it’s totally stupid. I apologize for being vague, but think along the lines of the it-was-the-trees twist in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening – spoiler alert for an eleven-year-old movie. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it completely undermines any chance the film had of a satisfactory denouement, it being the kind of twist that completely takes over the narrative. Is it surprising? Sure. Is it compelling? No. In fact, it actually deflates any sense of tension or stakes the film might have already established, both emotionally and fundamentally. I’ll stop there before I go too far, but I doubt anyone will fault me for ruining a film that’s already in narrative shambles. I actually recommend checking it out if it hits streaming platforms – if anyone bothers to pick it up – if only so you can marvel at just how inane the plot becomes. Seriously, if you like watching train wrecks, this might be worth a watch.
All that being said, it’s not like Serenity was all too compelling up until the third act, either. After all, everything in it was written by the same person, and so its more noticeable flaws are inherent throughout. The character development and dialogue are woefully egregious, the cinematography and editing are head-scratchingly bizarre, and the overall tone for some reason rides the line between self-serious and hokey. It honestly makes me question whether anyone on set had ever made a movie before. It almost has the look and feel of one of those legal thrillers from the ’90s, almost as if it was based off some John Grisham novel, or whoever it is that my dad likes. Which coincidentally is the only medium that this story could actually thrive in, even though it’d probably still come off as half-baked. I guess what I’m saying is that this is a weird movie all around, and in no way is that a good thing.
Though where most casual viewers are going to get a kick out the so-bad-it’s-good qualities of the film is surely in the performances, not least of which is that of Matthew McConaughey. If the so-called “McConaughssiance” peaked in 2013 with his Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club, it hasn’t exactly been a proverbial bed of roses for him since, between this and the much maligned Sea of Trees and The Dark Tower adaptation. If there’s one silver lining for him here, he’ll probably get forgotten when it comes time for the Razzies to crap on the worst of the worst for 2019. Though if they did remember to include him it’d be well warranted, as his performance is somewhere in between the ones he employed in Interstellar and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. To say nothing of those kind of turns individually, together they make a tonal cacophony. Equally hammy though nowhere near as bad is Anne Hathaway, who I’m a little more convinced was at the mercy of Knight’s questionable direction for the character. Regardless, it doesn’t make her look good. And if you’re curious about the rockstar supporting cast, don’t be surprised when I tell you they’re completely misused. No one of them encapsulates this better than Diane Lane, who is a powerhouse veteran actor, surely, but whose character serves next to no purpose in the story, despite the fact that she appears in several scenes. Or, watching several scenes, I should say, she being relegated to looking out her bedroom window while the plot happens outside.
I’m only five movies into 2019, and already Serenity is my absolute least favorite of all the stinkers I’ve seen. Hell, it might’ve been my least favorite of 2018 had it kept either of its original two release dates. In short, this is a bonkers movie that was bad before it even decided to be bonkers. While it likely won’t join the ranks of classic so-bad-it’s-good gems like The Room or Troll 2, it’s worth at least one hate-watch if you feel the need to laugh at something. Until then, please don’t go see this in theaters. It doesn’t deserve your money.
Final Score: 1/10