“There’s some weird stuff going on right now,” and ain’t that the truth in Steven Knight’s “Serenity.” The writer-director of “Locke” returns with a sleazy film noir about attempted murder on an isolated island, but it doesn’t take long before that underwritten, conventional storyline goes in an extremely odd (and extremely questionable) direction.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Baker Dill, a fisherman who’s so obsessed with catching one particular tuna — that tuna’s name is “Justice” — that he pulls a knife on his own customers, just to prevent them from catching it themselves. He doesn’t make a lot of money, that Baker Dill. And no matter how hard he tries, he never catches that danged fish.
Baker Dill meanders around Plymouth Island, a small community of salty fishermen and even saltier, stickier trysts. But although Baker Dill has a sexual arrangement with the well-to-do Constance (Diane Lane), he’s not entirely over his ex-wife, Karen (Anne Hathaway). So it’s awkward, to say the least, when she arrives on Plymouth Island unexpectedly — and asks Baker Dill to kill her new husband.
To his credit, Baker Dill rejects her offer, but the more he learns about her husband, Frank (Jason Clarke), the more we realize Frank really is an abusive monster, who brutalizes Karen and Baker Dill’s son, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh). Maybe, just maybe, the world would be better off without Frank. And maybe, just maybe, Baker Dill is the man to do it.
And maybe, just maybe, that’s not very interesting. Knight, who’s written excellent crime thrillers like “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Eastern Promises,” doesn’t bring his usual, rich characters and believable dialogue to “Serenity.” For a long time, it plays like a copy of a copy of a copy of “Body Heat.” The nuance is lost, and only the perspiration remains. Every frame is so unbelievably sweaty you’ll pray for the sprinklers in the theater to go off.
The story is all pressure points and no connective tissue, with big plot turns landing hard and everything in between feeling aimless. McConaughey carries the film as best he can, but his character is stuck halfway between “Mud” and “A Time to Kill” with no off-ramp in sight, and Hathaway has never looked this disinterested before. Some of the supporting cast (even the good ones) deliver their lines like they’re reading GPS directions, and it’s hard to blame them, because the dialogue rangers from perfunctory to absurd. “You fish for only one tuna,” one of the islanders tells Baker Dill. “And that fish is only in your head.”
By the halfway point, it’s getting hard to imagine why McConaughey and Hathaway were interested in this project, or why Knight wrote it. But then something happens that changes the whole direction of the story, and it happens so early that it’s impossible to truly critique the film without addressing it. But it also happens just late enough in the movie that revealing it is a gigantic spoiler. (This phenomenon is known as “The Terminator Genisys Effect.”)
Suffice it to say, before going any further, that “Serenity” looks and sounds like a subpar film noir on purpose, and the reason behind it is remarkably unsatisfying, and makes the film even more awkward and uncomfortable.
What follows might be considered SPOILERS to some, so proceed with caution:
Without going into too much detail, the world of “Serenity” is not to be trusted, and it’s all part of a grand design. Nobody is who they say they are, and it’s Baker Dill’s responsibility to complete his quest — to catch the fish, or to kill Frank — or else something exceptionally bad will happen to his son.
If it sounds exciting, it’s not. The revelation — provided by Jeremy Strong (“Succession”), who’s essentially playing the running-gag pratfall guy from “Catalina Caper” — answers no questions, raises millions of others, and unveils some truly disgusting subtext that the movie never dares address.
We are expected to believe that Baker Dill is the hero, and that killing Frank might be the most moral out of all his options, because doing so will save Patrick. But in the process we learn things about Patrick that are deeply disturbing. Patrick is keenly interested in watching Frank sexually abuse his mother, for instance, but “Serenity” never confronts that disturbing facet of his character. Patrick is a creepy person in a creepy world ruled by a creepy creep with a creepy fixation on fishing, of all things, and “Serenity” sidelines that whole line of inquiry in favor of Baker Dill’s existential crisis and a ham-fisted insistence on following the “Fisherman Always Rings Twice” subplot to its (illogical) conclusion.
The best twists make you reevaluate everything you’ve seen before, and reveal new layers of the story that make the whole film stronger. The twist in “Serenity” makes you reevaluate everything you’ve seen before, but now it all makes less sense, as though Knight wasn’t particularly interested in the mechanics of his twist and only interested in pulling the rug out from under us. The joke’s on all of us, because the film, the filmmakers, the actors and even audience wind up falling flat on our bottoms. And it hurts.
“Serenity” is a twist in search of a movie, a film noir in search of a purpose, and a great cast in search of better material.