Few films this year have been as curiously shrouded in vaguely damning pre-release press as Susanne Bier’s Great Depression era drama Serena, and watching the final product, sadly almost all of that negative buzz turns out to be justified. Filmed right around the time leading actors Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence were first becoming megastars, the project was curiously shelved for unknown reasons after the completion of principal photography in 2012. Cooper, Lawrence, and even Bier (who made After the Wedding, Things We Lost in the Fire, Brothers, and 2010’s Best Foreign Film Oscar winner In a Better World) all made several other films that were released in the interim, but no one seemed to really be questioning why the movie wasn’t being released. And despite already garnering a release in the UK and a surprisingly wide release in Canada this coming weekend, it’s not being positioned as any sort of awards contender despite the parties involved. In the U.S., the film will be going straight to VOD at the end of February before a cursory theatrical release at the end of March.
It’s impossible to not think about what could have happened to make Serena so terrible while watching it. The final product that appears on screen isn’t in any sort of releasable condition. It’s a barely watchable, oddly plotted mess that can’t pick a tone or plot thread to stay with for more than five minutes at a time. But in several moments peppered throughout the film, there’s an undeniable wealth of competency both in front of and behind the camera; enough to suggest that there was a reason everyone signed up for the job in the first place. Bier’s editing process apparently took a whopping 18 months, but the final product suggests something that was either turned in unfinished or it was taken away from her somehow. Nothing in this film has an arc or progression, and it isn’t particularly artful or focused enough to conceal the narrative problems. Scenes crash into each other, characters disappear, threads are forgotten about, and the film doesn’t even seem to be all that invested in the torment of its titular character. It’s the kind of spectacular trainwreck that could only be made by talented professionals who had no idea the final product would turn out this poorly.
Set in the American Smoky Mountains starting in 1929, logging company magnate George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) finds himself at a crossroads. He’s not a particularly ethical man, knocking up his secretary and ignoring her and bribing local officials so he can keep cutting down trees and stop the government from building a national park. His money is tied up in worthless stocks, and if he loses control of the region to the bullying local sheriff (Toby Jones), he’s finished. His solace comes in the form of his headstrong bride Serena (Lawrence), a working class girl with a nose for business and hard work. Things grow complicated, however, when an accident leaves Serena barren and unable to give George a son or daughter.
The dialogue in this adaptation of Ron Rash’s 2008 novel from Christopher Kyle (Alexander, K-19: The Widowmaker) already creaks under the weight of ceaseless exposition, but Bier does what she can to cut around the obvious, occasionally letting the simple reaction on a character’s face tell more story than the script could. But while the film’s desire to over-explain things leads to a different kind of problem that we’ll get into in a moment, there’s no excuse for every conversation between George and Serena to sound the exact same. In the first half of the film, their interactions feel so forced and similar that it sucks away all the chemistry that Lawrence and Cooper have previously shown as actors together in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. They’re given shockingly nothing to do and little to work with.
It’s hard to tell if the film’s complete and utter lack of focus was inherent in the writing stage or comes as a result of the horrendous editing. The film really belongs to Cooper, and not Lawrence, which is curious since Bier apparently insists in interviews that the film is really about Serena’s descent into madness. First off, that’s never the case. Second, that descent into madness is still told largely from George’s point of view, thus negating much of any reading that could be given to the contrary.
Bier can also never decide if she wants to make George out to be a sympathetic kind of cad. For the first three quarters of the film, George isn’t an easy person to like. He has moral moments, but he’s still prone to horrid behaviours that he keeps hidden and dirty dealings to stay on top in his business. Then, almost out of nowhere and thanks to the increased role of an overacting Rhys Ifans as a bizarro hunter/trapper/foreman/soothsayer guy, Cooper suddenly has to become a very liable hero at the drop of a hat when Serena turns unrepentantly malicious and evil. None of it rings true because none of these characters have any arcs to suggest that they would react in this fashion. It’s all arbitrary in completely in the hands of Bier and Kyle. There’s nothing Cooper, Lawrence, or any of the actors can do once the film reaches its horror movie climax. No. You read that correctly. It’s a period drama that just decides to end as a stalk and slash horror film.
Bier fashions the film most of the time as a sort of Leone-like crime epic or a lighter-weight version of Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. The production design, cinematography, and locations are all gorgeous, even if the people that inhabit the world are decidedly ugly on the inside. There aren’t a lot of virtuous people (except for the knocked up secretary, played nicely by Ana Ularu), and a lot of villains that seem to rotate throughout the story seemingly at random. There’s George’s condescending prick of a business partner (David Denick) who’s secretly selling out the company because he hates that Serena knows more than he does about how to run a logging business. He’s only important for half the film before George’s OTHER business partner and right hand man (Sean Harris) decides to commit an almost identical act of betrayal. Jones is as great as always, but his local lawman is a stereotypical hardass. I can’t even begin to describe what Ifans nor his character are trying to accomplish here outside of trying to help George kill a panther before going off the deep end.
The cobbled together nature of the production only gets worse as it progresses. It’s easy to keep track of what’s going on from a plotting perspective, but from a logical and logistical standpoint it doesn’t make a lick of sense. No amount of gorgeously recreated rural railways, run down shacks, lush camera angles, or great performances will change any of that. Cooper and Lawrence are fine, but neither exactly goes the extra mile to make the film work in spite of itself. It doesn’t feel as much like an actor’s showcase than it does an awkward work-for-hire gig. It’s even more of a shame since Bier has always been an interesting filmmaker even at her worst. It’s a film that feels like it has an hour of footage missing, but it’s doubtful that missing hour would have made much of a difference. It’s a doomed project that’s now destined to become a curious footnote in the careers of everyone involved with it.