Serenity is the worst film of 2019 – and will be for quite some time
It’s not an understatement to declare Serenity, Steven Knight’s neo-noir starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, the worst film of 2019. It’s even more likely that the film will hold that title for quite some time to come, as it will take a true champ to throw under what this misguided cinematic fiasco is “attempting” to do.
“Attempting” is, unfortunately, the correct term, because whatever writer/director Knight believes he is doing with the film absolutely does not work. The entire enterprise is built around a twist so misguided that it will make M. Night Shyamalan’s worst critics blush; depending on your appreciation for cinematic disasters, the result renders the film ridiculous or unintentional high camp.
McConaughey stars as Baker Dill (sigh), former Iraq war vet and current destitute fisherman barely making ends meet. Dill naturally has an unhealthy fixation on “the one that got away” – which takes the form of a giant tuna fish in the water and Anne Hathaway on dry land (to be clear: they are different characters, although if they were the same it would make for a better film).
Serenity opens with an extended “action” sequence in which Dill self-sabotages a lucrative gig taking rich drunks out to fish. When the watery object of his affection swims by, Dill can’t help playing Ahab, telling his customers off so that he can strain and sweat over the fishing rod for the remainder of the day. It’s gripping stuff…if you’re deeply invested in fishing. As a character introduction, it’s as subtle as a hammer to the forehead. It’s clear that Dill is a misguided man driven by singular urges, despite the best efforts by his reasonable second in command Duke (Djimon Hounsou – wasted) and the supportive community members of Plymouth Island, the film’s fictional is-this-the-Caribbean-or-is-it-Florida? setting.
Knight’s script spares no clichéd character trait or visual shorthand to communicate just how much of a broken-down loser Dill is. His home is a shipping crate in the middle of nowhere. His shower is a cliff jump into the ocean. He resorts to playing hustler for bored busy-body Constance (Diane Lane – criminally wasted), who spouts dime-store wisdom from Film Noir For Dummies and is consumed by a constant search to “Find the cat” (which may or may not be an euphemism considering she seemingly exists solely to go to bed with Dill and lend him cash).
The plot kicks in when Dill’s ex-wife Karen (Hathaway) shows up out of the blue at the island’s sole drinking hole. Karen, with her platinum blonde hair and dangerous propositions, is clearly meant to be a nod to 40s femme fatales, but Hathaway can’t save the lukewarm dialogue or spark any chemistry with McConaughey. Karen – naturally – wants Dill to help kill her rich abusive husband Frank (Jason Clarke), in exchange for a cool $10M. The real bait she dangles in front of her ex, however, is the supposition that the domestic violence has been affecting their son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), who is glimpsed exclusively in front of his computer screen playing games. And we know how deeply Dill cares for his son because he drinks from a “World’s Greatest Dad” mug throughout the film.
Were this all that Serenity had to offer, it would simply be a bland, inoffensive neo-noir in the vein of Palmetto. There’s clearly more going on, however, and Knight’s script eschews any sense of nuance or subtlety in favour of repeatedly, aggressively reinforcing just how “off” things are on the island. The film pretends these oddities are mysterious and difficult to decipher, but they gather up at such an exponential rate (the cyclical rhythms of characters’ actions, the way that everyone knows everyone’s business, Jeremy Strong’s meek and mousey character who chases Dill everywhere) or are delivered in such thuddingly obvious ways (“You and Patrick are connected” Karen wails to Dill at one point) that there are really only two possible answers for what is happening.
Unfortunately neither answer is satisfying… and Knight opts for the more ridiculous option.
McConaughey, who is in nearly every scene, fares poorly. Dill is a bland, one-dimensional character and McConaughey plays him without any charisma or interior conflict. There’s no depth behind Dill’s abrasiveness, and even when the twist is revealed at the start of the third act, nothing changes in his performance (minus a comically delivered “Noooooo!”, which few actors – and certainly not McConaughey – can deliver convincingly). Judging from the performance, it’s entirely possible McConaughey was as drunk throughout the shoot as the character he plays.
Hathaway should be having a ball, but the script weighs her down and, like Dill, there’s no suggestion that there’s more to Karen than what meets the eye. She’s bad news, sure, but she’s not calculating like the classic femme fatales are. Possibly the best performance of the film is delivered by Clarke, who is uncomfortably convincing at portraying a scumbag who deserves a violent fate. Everything you need to know about him is made evident when Frank declares his intention to seek out underage girls for $10 sexual encounters (Again: subtlety is not the film’s strength).
Knight is an accomplished auteur whose other work (Taboo, Locke) is thematically rich and character driven; how he managed to produce such an inept film is easily the most fascinating riddle that Serenity poses.
The production itself is well shot – minus some unconvincing tuna VFX – but a beautiful island location can only entertain for so long with a film that refuses to treat its audience with any respect. The ending, with its soaring crescendo score and supposed emotional pay-off, is clearly meant to provoke cathartic waterworks. The best my theatre could manage was a polite cough and a guffaw.
Finally – and it’s a small point, but emblematic of how flawed the film is on nearly every level – despite repeated proclamations by Karen about how incredibly rich she is, Danny Glicker’s costumes have all of the expensive pedigree as a trip to the local Gap outlet. Nothing helps sell the fantasy quite like ill-fitting casual wear on a millionaire.