Serenity (2019)

On Plymouth Island, No One Ever Dies … Unless You Break the Rules

It’s hard to judge a film like Serenity. Sure, it’s terrible — but is it deliberately so? It’s either the exact kind of awfulness that springs from a completely unfettered artistic ego or a parody of that impulse so micron-fine precise that Poe’s Law reigns supreme. It was all but buried by the distributor, Aviron, which prompted an outcry from stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. Now, with the film having quietly slipped into Australian home release, completely skipping a theatrical run, it’s clear that Aviron may have been doing the Oscar winners a favor.

We set our scene in the idyllic fishing hamlet of Plymouth Island, where bronzed and stubbly charter captain Baker Dill (McConaughey) is obsessed with landing his nemesis, a monster tuna he has dubbed ‘Justice.’ His singular fixation, which has cost him paydays and damaged his friendship with his first mate, Duke (Djimon Hounsou), gets interrupted when his ex, Karen (Hathaway in full-on smoky femme fatale mode) hoves into view with a proposition: kill her boorish and abusive current husband, Frank (Jason Clarke), and resume their fiery romance. And so, the seeds of a morally murky noir drama are sown.

‘… something smells fishy.’

Then, almost an hour in, Serenity deploys a sudden narrative revelation that is so jarring in tone, so clumsily handled, that it just about scuppers the whole affair. It’s a spoiler, of course, but it’s also something that needs to be talked about in order to really dig into Serenity’s world record awfulness. To its credit, it’s not a twist you can see coming; even with the benefit of hindsight, the scattering of clues and cues that lead up to the big reveal could in no way prepare even the canniest of viewers for what lies in wait — it’s just too gonzo.

So, as absolutely no one expects, it turns out that our hero is not a salty sea captain with a dark past, but the playable character in a sandbox computer game that includes — of course — a fishing simulator subgame. He’s an analog of the real Baker, a soldier slain in action, created by his son, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) because all the kids are into fishing games these days, don’t you know? There’s a real Karen — Patrick’s mother and Baker’s widow — and a real Frank, who is an actual abusive piece of crap. The whole scenario is Patrick working out his angst in digital.

All other considerations aside, this does explain the preceding hour’s heightened, on-the-nose genre stylings — it’s a video game pastiche. So, well done there.

‘… think they’ll take the bait?’

Bizarrely, Serenity continues on, keeping us anchored to Baker’s point of view, who we now know is not even an AI, but a programmed simulacrum of a dead man. Questions of personhood and identity are blithely brushed aside, although our guy does spend a chunk of time self-medicating with rum in order to process his existential dilemma before getting back on the genre horse and proceeding with the murder plot against Frank.

Sadly, after it’s nutzoid midpoint reveal, nothing in Serenity ever gets that crazy again, settling down to be more or less the noir potboiler it boasts all the earmarks of, only one leavened with the kind of post-modern cyberpunk-by-way-of-PKD flavoring someone with no respect for cyberpunk, post-modernism or Philip K. Dick is capable of creating (you can always tell when someone thinks they’re better than the genre they’re working in).

Still, it’s a lot of fun, if your idea of fun is watching talented and charismatic actors do the best they can with material they must have known was deeply suspect, or at the very least was going to take a deft hand to pull off. Writer and director Steven Knight, whose work as a screenwriter includes Eastern Promises (2007) and Dirty Pretty Things (2002), and who created both Peaky Blinders (2013) and Taboo (2017) for television, possibly possesses such a hand, but he definitely kept it jammed in his pocket on this one. Perhaps he’s having a bad run — his last produced script was the inert The Girl in the Spider’s Web, while the World War Z sequel he wrote for David Fincher was recently canned. Judging by this effort, that’s probably a good thing.

‘Can’t work today. My arm’s in a cast.’

The best-case scenario is that all involved knew what they were in for and signed on as an excuse for a working holiday in Mauritius. If that’s not the case, then we have to default to the late screenwriter William Goldman’s acerbic observation that, in Hollywood, nobody knows anything, and this is just another piece of evidence of that axiom to put on the shelf.

1 / 5 – Don’t Waste Your Time

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Serenity is released through Madman Entertainment Australia