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Some movies defy accurate description, be it that they are just so muddled that you can’t pin them down, or that they hide their true selves so well that you don’t want to spoil the fun. Serenity is the latest film that can be classified as such, as there’s a lot of moving pieces at work that don’t totally pull together in the end. One such piece is so insanely deployed that for a while, it looks like writer/director Steven Knight was toying with you on purpose. Sadly, by the time Serenity wraps up, the toying is confirmed, but the purpose just isn’t there.
Serenity’s protagonist, Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), just wants to catch the huge-ass fish that has evaded him since he first wound up on the shores of Plymouth Island. A war vet that’s retreated to this beachy paradise, he’s sunk tons of money and man hours trying to catch what he calls “Justice.” That goal becomes even more impossible when an old flame (Anne Hathaway) walks back into his life with a deadly proposition: $10 million to kill her abusive husband (Jason Clarke) and feed him to the sharks.
Serenity assembles a talented cast of all-stars, then asks them to act out what’s basically a late night Cinemax movie from the late 80’s / early 90’s. There are twists, turns, and dialogue straight out of a typical movie that mixes dialogue in with cable friendly sex scenes that break up the thinly plotted story. For a while, it feels like Serenity has taken a dive into sleaze central, and then it takes its first turn, changing the rules entirely.
What was once a “sexy noir” knockoff turns into a copy of something altogether different, which actually bumps Serenity back up a couple notches on the interesting scale for a time being. Ideas are brought up, and the audience is forced to question what they’ve seen prior to that crucial moment that unfurls approximately at the very center of the film. Even what felt like one dimensional performances by McConaughey and his cast mates land another layer of depth, as information is provided that redefines the context of Serenity’s opening act. For real, we were borderline on board.
It’s in this phase of Steven Knight’s film that Serenity makes its most effective choices, ones that must be shielded at all costs. Why? Because when that big moment lands, it really lands. Eyes will light up and/or roll at the screen, but Serenity stops being the total slime ball it could have been, and ventures into some interesting waters. It actually holds your attention, as the meat of this sandwich is truly prime cut compared to the hard bread barely holding it all together.
Unfortunately, by the time the film speeds into its final act of action and suspense, Serenity launches itself into a late film info dump that undermines a lot of the goodwill it’s earned. While there’s certainly enough supporting information to lazily go from A to Z in a simple manner, the story as a whole doesn’t take the final form it wishes it could. There are a lot of ideas, but nothing to smartly connect them into a clear intent, leaving you, the viewer, as aimless as the characters on screen.
Serenity is another film that will see itself labelled as bonkers and batshit, and it earns those stripes, rightfully so. The gymnastics it pulls when it pivots into its final form are admirable, and at the very least this could be an entertaining matinee. But at its worst, Serenity is a film that starts off like a Cinemax late night thriller, only to slide into half baked territory that only a USA Networks original dares to tread. Let it be said that admirable intentions don’t mean anything if your movie pretends to know everything, but ends up knowing nothing.