Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway go off the deep end in the wacky mess Serenity

Matthew McConaughey | Aviron Pictures

Matthew McConaughey | Aviron Pictures

There’s few films in recent memory that bash you over the head with its aesthetic as quickly and brutally as Serenity. Writer-directer Steve Knight’s (Locke) newest venture opens with Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) as Baker Dill (yes, really), a rugged deep-sea fisherman who spends less time worrying about pleasing the drunken tourists he takes out on his boat than he does obsessing over capturing the giant CGI tuna that plagues his dreams, a “beast” he calls “Justice” (really!). It’s clear from the get-go that Dill is a man with an attitude problem: he grunts and snarls at everything in sight, drinks heavily, and has enough screaming-at-the sky tantrums to make Nicolas Cage blush. Dill’s cyclical routine of fishing and seeing pal Constance (a criminally underused Diane Lane, Unfaithful) for afternoon delight is interrupted by the re-appearance of his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway, Interstellar), who has sought out Dill to complete the task of murdering her abusive husband Frank (Jason Clarke, First Man) by “throwing him to the sharks”. She’s offering him an attractive $10 million for whacking Frank, but that’s not the only thing weighing on Dill’s mind; he’s got a son to worry about too, his child with Karen who is too living under the torment of Frank’s rule. Dill, how McConaughey portrays him, and this “sexy” noir moral dilemma quickly settle your brain in for an island thriller straight out of the Salty Spittoon.

Then, it goes completely off the deep end.

It’s extremely difficult to talk through Serenity without spoiling its third-act twist, a revelation so utterly absurd that it’s unlikely any film this year will top it in the nonsense department. There’s hints early on that’s something not quite right on the faraway slice of paradise Dill calls home, an island ridiculously named Plymouth, but nothing can prepare you for the truth of its reality. It’s the sort of twist so implausible that’s it’ has to be explained by a secondary character in an exposition dump before the movie buys into the idea and carries on full speed ahead. Everything leading up to it is burned away in a flash, re-contextualizing its soap opera nature into something far weirder.

That’s not to say it’s by any means saved by this sudden plot shift, as the first hour of the film chugs along like a tugboat treading water. It’s riddled with bad line after bad line (one such moment sees Lane’s Constance playfully calling Dill a hooker, only for McConaughey to gravely reply that he’s “a hooker with no hooks”) and a deliberately trashy style that will overstay its welcome with all except the most dedicated of pulpy B-movie fans. Its ill-advised notions about how a film noir should operate are perhaps most present in Hathaway’s Karen, a femme fatale who almost makes Jessica Rabbit seem tame in comparison. Armed with approximately 5000 usages of the word “daddy” and speaking in a severe princess accent better suited for an SNL skit, Hathaway turns in perhaps the only truly bad performance of her career, the sort of regrettable grab for the sex appeal allure that saw so many 80s stars momentarily derail their careers in pursuit of, eye-rolling sex scene and all. It’s a dated role that only further highlights the case of mistaken identity Knight’s script is plagued by, a writing exercise so steeped in homage that it borders on self-parody.

McConaughey and Anne Hathaway | Aviron Pictures

McConaughey and Anne Hathaway | Aviron Pictures

If you can get past the cheese, however, there’s some merits to be found here. McConaughey’s performance isn’t necessarily bad, per se, if you can look past the terrible lines he’s being fed. He’s far removed from the charming hunk roles of his early career, now fully buying into the manic energy that made his roles in True Detective and Killer Joe bring about the birth of the so-called McConaissance. He’s hinting here that he may be on the cusp of a Cage-ian style dive into the wild side of acting, with moments of genuine madness so shamelessly entertaining it’s hard to say the change in style wouldn’t be a welcome one. Also having fun is Jason Clarke, whose usual typecasting as All-American boy types is put sorely to rest here with a unhinged performance as the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed crime bro Frank. He really leans into the toxic masculinity of the role, selling you on his character being every bit as dangerous as he is irritating.

Knight, who has a long and weird career in film, may not have his strongest script in play here but he does try his damnedest in the director’s chair. Some camera flourishes seem amateurish at first, from weird hi-speed swirling to reveal actor’s faces to the camera bursting through the water like an angry dolphin, but these choices are given a boost by the aforementioned twist. Weird angles and weirder movement come into focus, proving that Knight is nothing if not committed to his gimmick. Seeing a director so fully in control of their vision is not something you can completely condemn when that vision is this strange.

It’s easy to see why Serenity was delayed repeatedly until it landed itself in the muck of the January dead zone. It’s too corny for awards season, too weird for the summer season, and so completely off-the-walls that it’s hard to imagine it being released with confidence any other time of the year. And indeed, this may be the most January release ever, a piece of pure schlock so unintentionally laughable that it will dominate the mockery of online film culture for years to come. That alone, along with the cautious admiration you might have for this film being so unafraid to just go for it, for better or worse, may just save it from being a complete disaster.

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For more thoughts on Serenity and a deep dive into the 2019 Oscar nominations, check out this week’s episode of the Reel Nine Podcast:

Ryan Ninesling