'Serenity' Offers Noir on the Water but Lacks Clarity Directed by Steven Knight
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Djimon Hounsou, Jason Clarke
Published Jan 24, 2019Screenwriter-by-trade Steven Knight's last film as director, Locke, is almost all talk, literally. Tom Hardy spends the entire film in his car talking over the speakerphone. For his directorial followup, Serenity, Knight grabs Matthew McConaughey, an actor marked by his loquaciousness, and introduces him as sour and unwilling to try to connect with anyone around him.
We find Baker Dill (McConaughey) on Plymouth Island, a paradise of little specificity. The sunny spot is shot with the exuberant style of a properly saturated Michael Bay film and is a melange of details, filled with sugar cane fields, surrounding ocean and is solely populated by expats, seemingly. Dill's a fisherman hiding from his past and scraping by, taking tourists out for rides along with his first mate, Duke (Djimon Hounsou). When the fish don't bite, he visits Constance (Diane Lane), who's fine with slipping him cash after some time together.
Through a stretch of the movie, we don't see Dill open up about what brought him here, nor see too many direct clues as to why he'd wallow so much in his sad circumstances. All we know is that he's consumed with the quest for one specific tuna that continues to evade him, which he has named Justice. That, and when he's drinking liquor out of a World's Greatest Dad mug back at his place, he says, "Sorry kid."
No one on the island could believably tease those details out of him, either. McConaughey has easy charm and a gift for dialogue; breaking from that, Dill is disconnected and morose. When islanders talk to him, he'll often talk past them or outright ignore them. The locals don't seem to need too many details from him, though. Everyone he talks to is aware of everything else happening on Plymouth, which, combined with Dill's status as an other, makes for an odd effect.
Dill's misery pays off dramatically when Karen (Anne Hathaway) arrives. A woman from Dill's past, she's a classic femme fatale, in costume, blond hair, and most of all Hathaway's on-the-edge performance. Her husband, Jason Clarke's Frank, is a beyond-piggish abuser, physically possessive enough to examine her naked body for signs of affairs and sexually depraved enough to mention a few times his interest in child prostitutes on this tiny island. Karen fears for herself and also for her son, who spends his days locked away in his room playing computer games to escape Frank.
She makes a proposal to Dill: take Frank out fishing and push him overboard, and she'll pay him $10 million.
This is where the neo-noir plot kicks in, a Double Indemnity-style story of compromised morals, this time surrounded by salt water, but the genre doesn't get a clear-cut treatment here. The normal noir bargain, of transgression and punishment, is twisted, as is the role of the femme fatale and the interests of our lead. And as those elements get subverted, Serenity's strange details, like Dill's initial demeanour and what's going on with this island, come into focus.
Knight takes this movie places, through a setup that's waiting on a great payoff to familiar noir tropes and onto a genuinely WTF reveal. Without saying more, he doesn't stop pushing for new ground, unfortunately in ways where the WTF of bewilderment becomes desultory. In the finale, the stakes and the connections between the actions among characters are unclear and confusing or, occasionally, don't seem to have a point.
Noir fishes in moral grey areas while addressing quandaries with some clarity. Serenity sloshes around in the same water, whipping everything up to a froth that doesn't clear up by the time credits roll.