James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.
James Cole Clay // Film Critic
SERENITY is a big high-concept swing that blends an erotic thriller with existential parenting – think BASIC INSTINCT meets INTERSTELLAR. Now you may be thinking “what the hell,” and for good reason. This isn’t your typical January fare. Director and screenwriter Steven Knight (LOCKE) created a film that defies logic and morality to become a rather intriguing piece of filmmaking. He essentially made a $25 million creative exercise with Academy Award-winning actors. On an emotional level, SERENITY is a rather elusive film, one that never fully congeals, but morphs into rather weird territories that, by the end, changes the film’s perspective altogether.
Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fishing boat captain on the secluded island of Plymouth, where he and his day-worker first mate, Duke (Djimon Honsou), take out dudes dressed like Jimmy Buffet on the ocean to catch salt-water fish for a handsome price. The days are different, but the mission is always the same: make a few bucks, and if he comes across his prized giant tuna, Dill will quickly turn into Captain Ahab, bail on his clients and obsess over his prize.
Plymouth is a place where “everybody knows everything,” and it seems commonplace for Dill to be able to predict what will happen next. Dill’s life essentially consists of rum, cigarettes, and schtuping an islander named Constance (Diane Lane) in between his fishing obsession. As we are acquainted with this salty lifestyle, in comes our femme fatale, Karen (Anne Hathaway), ex-wife of Dill and mother to his son. Since they parted ways, she remarried a truly gross human being named Frank (Jason Clarke), who abuses his stepson and wife in the worst of ways. If there was ever an embodiment of toxic masculinity… This. Is. It.
There are a lot of details at play in Knight’s messy, albeit curious, screenplay that almost reinvents and deconstructs the hard-boiled nature of film noir machismo. Now, it’s not a perfect depiction by any means, yet the filmmaker finds fascination in creating his own version of tropes we have already encountered in previous films. In most films, being derivative will sink your creative energy faster than you can say “All right, all right, all right,” but McConaughey – and the cast – kind of sell this zany premise. It reminds me of the Ridley Scott film THE COUNSELOR, where the entire cast bought into this weird vision that never really clicks… but it sure is fun to watch. Just don’t be surprised when the film throws you for a loop.
McConaughey plays off of his reckless persona to bring to life a broken individual who every so often screams into the vast void of the ocean. Hathaway plays an abused (excuse the expression) trophy wife looking for a way out of her marriage. And Clarke plays this awful human being quite well. The cast as a whole works well together, but the credit goes to Knight as a director, who executed a dirty, sexy tone that’s slightly stilted and every bit as weird as you may (or may not) want it to be. It boils down to pretty people on a beautiful island committing despicable acts.
There is more to this story than meets the eye. There is a giant twist in the middle that will make or break your enjoyment of what Knight is attempting to say about fathers and sons. While the outcome isn’t especially profound, here is a filmmaker using an imaginative playground to craft a story that many will scoff at, but will, nonetheless, have a few others scratching their chins searching for more.
SERENITY opens nationwide today.