Sometimes a movie is so true to life, it rattles us to our core and makes us take stock of all we hold dear. Sometimes a film is so delicately nuanced in themes and performance that they seem dreamed up by gossamer-winged angels. Serenity is none of these things. It’s totally bonkers, arguably trash, and…I think I loved it.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Baker Dill, a down-and-out captain who is scraping by on a remote and quirky island called Plymouth. With the bank calling in his debt, he risks losing his boat. Taking drunken sports fishermen out for day trips and running to his sugar momma (a kimono-lounging Diane Lane) isn’t going to cut it for much longer. (“I’m a hooker who can’t afford a hook!”) Enter femme fatale Karen (Anne Hathaway), a blonde bombshell from Baker’s past. She can solve his money woes and maybe give him a second chance at love. All he has to do is murder her abusive husband (Jason Clarke with a tough guy accent so thick you could beat a man to death with it.) The premise and its trailers paint Serenity as a neo-noir, slick with intrigue, sensuality, and sweat. But something stranger lurks beneath its surface.
There’s something off about Plymouth, where the gossip grapevine is more reliable than the evening news and faster than the internet. Everyone knows everybody else’s business, which leads to minor characters popping up to exposition dump to an increasingly bewildered Baker. “You know how they say, in Plymouth, everybody knows everything?” a distraught Baker ponders, “Wouldn’t it be funny if the truth was nobody knows anything.” There’s an eerie overeagerness shared by his neighbors, from his sternly loyal first mate (Djimon Hounsou) to the nosy bartender, the even nosier bait shop owner, and a curious bespectacled stranger (Jeremy Strong). So when Karen rolls into town, tongues are wagging, giving a comical amount of updates about her and her gruff husband’s every move. But Plymouth is a place that fosters obsession. Baker’s is fish, one in particular.
In a picturesque opening, a blissful day aboard his titular boat is flipped upside down when a bird flies high overhead. As if on cue, one of the fishing rods begins to zing as its line is snared. Two bloated, sunburnt tourist are ready to be handed off the rod so they can be the hero sport fisherman of the day. But Captain Baker won’t give it up. “It’s him!,” he crows to his exasperated first mate. This massive tuna that taunts him from below is the white whale to his Captain Ahab. He’s named this gigantic trophy fish Justice. And his dedication to landing it has cost him hours of blood, sweat, and tears. He risks ruin, sinking his own business to chase this tail. And frankly, it’s a ludicrous thing to watch an A-lister like McConaughey throw himself so fully into this low-stakes drama of catching a big fish. But Serenity knows this.
At first, I wasn’t sure if the campiness was intentional or if McConaughey had misjudged his swing on this performance and mistakenly fallen into Nic Cage territory. Then Karen shows up, her big fat diamond ring sparkling so bright that it’s like a light house’s beacon in Plymouth’s dank little bar. Hathaway flaunts the feckless sexual swagger of Jessica Rabbit and a lip pout so violent it ought to be outlawed. She unspools a sob story of a silver spoon upbringing, young love, tough times, and bad decisions. Greedily, she and McConaughey feast on every bit of scenery, making every heated glance, snarked barb, and tender confession a masterclass in delectable extravagance. And did I mention that McConaughey’s bare ass gets so much screen time that it really should be listed in the end credits? At least as a featured extra! By the time Clarke saunters in with his Sopranos castoff accent, I was absolutely giddy. Serenity knows it’s too much. It knows its premise is convoluted and silly, its characters cartoonish. And then it doubles down with a twist that is so absolutely outrageous you’ll never guess it. And I won’t dare spoil the fun.
Just when I thought this neo-noir had run its course and risked running aground in cliches, writer/director Steven Knight offers a game-changing reveal so wild that I marveled at its sheer nerve. A couple months back, I wondered why Serenity unceremoniously got bumped from October to January, which is often regarded as a dumping ground for movies that distributors don’t know what to do with. (Justice of Monster Trucks!) Despite boasting a pair of A-listers in a steamy R-rated thriller, Serenity’s been dropped here. And now I know why. The truth of this movie can’t be sold in a trailer. The core of its daring isn’t a crowdpleaser. But Knight and his cast know what they’re doing with this big swing. So, for those who relish the occasional unapologetically trashy bit of fun, this juicy, sweaty, and squalid noir will have you hook, line, and sinker.