Serenity is defined as the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled, an apt title for a story that takes place on the secluded nirvana of Plymouth Island. The sun-dappled tropical landscape with swirling white sand like sugar cane and crystal turquoise waters flecked with the reflection of the pellucid blue sky has a breathtaking beauty. But life on the celestial Plymouth Island almost seems too good to be true. The tiny enclave in the middle of nowhere is perfect for the tortured hermit Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey and a name that sounds like some sort of off-brand pickle), an Iraq veteran and gifted fisherman. When he is not out at sea or at the bar, Baker spends his time with Constance (Diane Lane), an older vamp who pays him for routine sex. Director and writer Steven Knight frames her constant surveillance of Baker through the blinds of her bungalow overlooking the dock within the classic noir shadows of chiaroscuro lighting.
Baker’s placid world is turned upside down when his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) arrives with her belligerent, odious husband (Jason Clarke). Clarke’s villainous histrionics are laughable instead of fearsome; turning what should be terrifying scenes of his physical and mental abuse towards Karen, a terrible reality for many women, into something silly. His sexism is too overwrought, painted in far too broad strokes to be taken seriously as a genuine critique on toxic masculinity. Although it could be argued that Clarke’s one-dimensional performance is in line with the twist that occurs at the end, our understanding of and investment in his character should not hinge on a climactic shift.
Hathaway aptly fulfills the film noir role of the femme fatale with her sultry voice, silky hair, tight suit skirts, and oversized hats—old-fashioned looks straight out of Double Indemnity or Chinatown with a modern twist. Karen hires Baker to take her husband on a fishing trip, kill him, and feed him to the sharks—a delectably evil murder plot perfect for the film’s shadowy noir stylings. Karen can no longer withstand the abuse that has started to affect her son with Baker who has turned into a recluse who obsessively plays video games all day.
There is a palpable tension between Baker, Karen, and her husband that electrifies Serenity with a nervous, thrilling energy, and combined with the unique island environment, the film could have been a truly captivating noir. But there are several kooky aspects that give you pause: Antonio Andrade’s overwrought score, strange, cheesy camera movements, and the supporting character of an insurance agent with extremely hokey dialogue who mysteriously shows up in the nick of time. Everything comes to a crashing halt when a twist is revealed that undermines the entire integrity of the film, completely vanquishing its sultry, tense atmosphere. This twist renders the palpable sexuality that drenches the film utterly bizarre, such as the scenes of the boy’s stepfather spanking his mother, shots of Karen and Baker’s rain-drenched and moonlit bodies making love, or the various close-ups ogling McConaughey’s taut, tan backside, particularly the way the shadows accentuate his brawny features like a Greek statue. Considering whose perspective the film turns out to be from, it is VERY strange that these shots should be from his subjectivity.
Steven Knight attempts to connect his twist to the larger ideas of how war is futile and soldiers are treated like nothing but pawns in a game, but his writing is far too witless to make this metaphor purposeful. As Interstellar proved, McConaughey is superb at depicting the loving bond between a father and child, but the ending’s conclusion between Baker and his son does not work because, unlike he and Murph, the son is nothing more than a vacuous cliché whom we have absolutely no identification with; despite all of McConaughey’s emotional heavy lifting, we feel nothing. The farcical twist completely collapses what was an enthralling noir into a mawkish, ridiculous melodrama. All that is left is to wonder is what drew these fine actors to this project in the first place?
By Caroline Madden
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero, Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Raging Bull, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD and her writing also appears on Fandor, Reverse Shot, IndieWire, and Vague Visages. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss and Instagram @crolins