The paradigm-shifting twist buried in Serenity’s saggy second act is certainly a shock, but whether or not it counts as an unavoidable conclusion depends on your personal level of masochism.
Is successfully pulling the rug out from under an audience’s feet still impressive if they all land on their necks? David Mamet once wrote in his book Three Uses of the Knife that a good ending to a drama should be both surprising and inevitable. The paradigm-shifting twist buried in Serenity’s saggy second act is certainly a shock, but whether or not it counts as an unavoidable conclusion depends on your personal level of masochism.
Over the years, Serenity writer/director Steven Knight has pursued a curious career. He’s scripted prestige crime dramas like Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises as well as the television series “Peaky Blinders.” But after directing Locke, a one-man show starring Tom Hardy alone in a car for the film’s length, he seems to be challenging himself as a storyteller a little too much. For instance, he’s taken on odd jobs as a hired pen for total clunkers like November Criminals and Seventh Son. So, Serenity, with its deceptively simple premise, felt like it might be a return to form.
The film’s marketing promised a pulpy noir flick populated with pedigreed performers. In the trailer, Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a broken down fisherman living on a remote island under an assumed name. His estranged and affluent ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) shows up, offering him $10 million to help kill her abusive husband. All the while, there are a lot of disquieting shots of the ocean. Djimon Hounsou is there. So is Diane Lane. It looks like every ‘90s sex thriller ever made, like the kind of semi-horny Blockbuster title a teen might linger on while his parents browse the new release section.
But Knight didn’t want to rest on his laurels here. For this one, he seems singularly driven towards throwing the most ludicrous curveball imaginable at the viewer. With any film playing with the well-worn tropes of noir, certain presumptions as to the direction of the narrative are inevitable. Hathaway’s Karen comports herself like a Disney Channel telefilm’s approximation of a femme fatale in a way that is both charming and bizarre, so it’s easy to assume the big twist will surround some kind of double cross, no doubt with her at the center, perhaps followed by a Mexican stand-off while the villain holds court with a handgun in one hand and several pages of exposition in the other.
That’s not what Serenity is. Without spoiling the film’s secret hook outright, it must be said that it is one of the most daring and absurd turns in recent movie history. Once the cat is out of the bag, the uncanny valley between what we as an audience expect from a film noir and what we as a society ought to get used to at the raggedy edge of the 2010s is just too vast. The more conventional half of the film that precedes this ludicrous reveal is no picnic either, with a litany of unrelated failings of tone, character and logic, but the big twist doesn’t, in retrospect, bring newfound clarity from those inconsistencies. In fact, it just compounds the confusion in new and heretofore unimaginable ways.
It’s a miracle that McConaughey, an actor whose shtick can easily border on self-parody, finds an emotional center to anchor himself through the third act’s many laugh-inducing complications. Though the creative direction Serenity takes is an ill-conceived one, it would be a lie to pretend it doesn’t transform a middling genre exercise into a baffling yet fascinating failure. It can’t, in good faith, be recommended as a satisfying viewing experience, but it honestly should be experienced.
When the dust settles, Serenity will slot quite nicely on a shelf next to similarly bombastic oddities like The Book of Henry, A Simple Favor and a throwback like Identity, all originating at the center between two converging circles marked “how did this get made?” and “why?”