Author’s note: The following is an in-depth review containing full spoilers for the film. Please proceed with caution.
Every year it seems we get a few films that really make us scratch our heads and wonder how they got made. In 2019 it took less than a month for that film to be dropped in theaters, leaving audiences dumbfounded at some of the profoundly puzzling decisions made in its screenplay. With Serenity, director Steven Knight followed up the critically acclaimed Locke (2013) and produced a truly peculiar and lackluster affair that will undoubtedly remain one of the more disappointing movies to come out this year.
The film centers itself around the story of Baker Dill, played by Matthew McConaughey. Dill is a fisherman on a mysterious island with many unique qualities. He is also a drunk, and apparently very good at sex. McConaughey is without a doubt a perfect man to lead this film, channeling some of the grizzled qualities he is now known for as Rust Cohle from True Detective. For all the problems this film has, McConaughey is not one of them. He does a superb job of selling the material and being a wildly compelling on-screen presence for the audience to follow. Unfortunately, the material he was given quickly turned into a largely uneven mess completely undeserving of McConaughey’s efforts.
The film immediately takes a turn for the worse with the introduction of Anne Hathaway’s character. She plays Karen, ex-wife of Baker and she comes to him on his prized fishing boat with a proposition: kill the step-father of their thirteen year-old son, her violent and alcoholic husband, played by Jason Clarke. Her plan is for Baker to take her husband Frank out fishing, get him drunk and toss him overboard for the sharks. She even offers him ten million dollars for the trouble. Of course, Baker is flabbergasted (as are we) and laughs it off. He agrees to take Frank out fishing but disregards the more questionable part of her request. Of course, when they are out on the boat Baker gets to see Frank in drunken form firsthand and his position on the matter begins to change.
From there, Serenity gets even weirder. Frank’s son Patrick becomes the second most important character in the film, despite the fact that he is literally tethered to his computer screen for its entirety. The point of emphasis on Patrick and his relationship with Baker is where the film really falls apart. As presented, being tied to his computer and fearing his step-father are his only characteristics. He never speaks in the film, he just types. Skipping ahead, in what is the earth-shattering twist that the movie presents, we learn that nothing occurring on Plymouth Island is real, it is all the creation of Patrick on his computer. His father was actually killed in the Iraq War, and he created this world on his computer as a means to escape the violent reality of his home-life. This twist comes more than an hour into the film, and from there McConaughey’s character becomes obsessed with “playing the game.” When Baker finally enacts Patrick’s vision and throws Frank overboard for death, it in turn leads to Patrick murdering his step-father in real life. The two of them have a strange, heartfelt conversation over the phone which doesn’t really make sense, but sure, we can end the movie there.
So yeah, this movie does some weird stuff, and all in all, it’s a disaster. It gets more and more messy as the film goes on, providing more head-scratching and eye-rolling moments per minute than any film should logically present. Despite an inspiring lead performance from McConaughey and an intriguing tropical setting of Plymouth Island, the movie seemingly does everything it can to undermine any momentum it may have had to begin with. Hathaway’s character is terribly written and very one-note and her performance reflects that. The same goes for Jason Clarke and his character. In the end, this movie is the product of a screenplay gone horribly wrong. Since Steven Knight’s success with Locke, he has followed that up with the much maligned FX series Taboo (2017-Present), and now Serenity. We can take away from this that perhaps Knight isn’t the writer he hopes to be and would be better off working with other people’s material. With Serenity, I was incredibly entertained throughout, marveling at the idiotic turns in the screenplay and somewhat entranced by its lead performance from Matthew McConaughey. Unfortunately, it is an experience that can be best summed up as gloriously underwhelming.