On its surface, Serenity is a sultry neo-noir, bolstered by A-listers Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. But don’t forget, these are stars who’ve been reveling in weird, turning out bonkers offerings like the Kaiju comedy Colossal and whatever in ball-tripping hell Beach Bum is. Beneath a slick sheen of sweat and seaspray, this island-set thriller is something far stranger. And we’re going to dive in to talk about this wild film’s head-turning twist and mind-melting ending.
MAJORS SPOILERS below for Serenity!
So what’s the strange secret of Plymouth where “everybody knows everything?” It’s not real. Baker Dill (McConaughey) is not a traumatized war vet who fled from life and love to a squalid, tropical island in the middle of nowhere. He’s a video game character created by Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), a grief-stricken boy dealing with an abusive stepdad in the wake of his biological father’s death.
Serenity cuts between sunny Plymouth and Patrick’s bedroom, a dark place with maps on the wall, a model lighthouse, a fish tank, and a computer at which the boy is always at rapt attention. Outside his bedroom door, we can hear his mother’s cries as her husband assaults her. To escape, Patrick channeled his need for a father-figure and a savior into designing a game based around the one memory he has of his dad, who died while serving in the military. It’s a shimmering flashback where Baker frolics on a dock with a preschool-aged Patrick as the two go fishing. “We didn’t catch a thing that day. And I got so mad,” Baker recounts, “Maybe that’s why you made me like I am, mad as hell to catch that damn fish.” In an act of love and grief, Patrick created a world where his dad could fish all day long and where Baker’s defining traits were rage and obsession.
But things get gnarly when Patrick programs his mom Karen (Hathaway) and a new mission into the game. Her appearance marks a change in the game’s purpose. No longer is its focus little challenges like catching the local cougar’s straying pet cat or hooking fish for profit or trophies. Death will come to this island where Patrick’s dad still “lives.” Instead of chasing down the big tuna called Justice, Baker shifts his focus to the quest put before him by his ex: kill her brute of a husband, Frank Zariakas (Jason Clarke).
In the real world, Frank is a violent construction worker, who abuses Patrick and his mom. In Plymouth, Frank is a vicious mobster who gets his kinks by lashing his wife’s flawless porcelain skin with a thick leather belt. He’s a crass goon who mocks his stepson to strangers and callously inquires where he might find underaged “$10 ass.” His villainy is so absolute it’s cartoonish, but that—like much of Serenity’s over the top elements from Hathaway’s breathy bombshell, to Clarke’s tough guy accent, and McConaughey’s teeth-grit bravado—makes sense when you realize its all borne from the brain of a child in panic. Still, this premise gets uncomfortable when we consider the sex scenes.
Is Patrick not only programming the game to enact a revenge fantasy against his stepfather but also to ensure his dad a string of sordid hook-ups? Is this 13-year-old computer whiz coding the scenes where Baker pimps himself out to Diane Lane’s purring, blowjob-giving cat-lover? Or the one where Frank makes a sadistic fetish out of examining his wife’s nude and not-yet-bruised flesh? Or the one where Patrick’s parents hate-fuck without climax, followed by his dad announcing while zipping his fly in a bitter exaltation, “I win!”?
In a word, no.
Though Patrick created Plymouth, there are clues that he is not in control of everything going on in Serenity. For starters, The Rules (Jeremy Strong) is initially working against him. Before Karen even sets foot on the island, a bespectacled dweeb in a dark suit incongruous to this tropical setting marches awkwardly through the waves. “Reid Miller” is the name on his business card. Within the game, his cover is that he is a representative from a fish and tackle company that wants to give Baker a fish finder (on a free trial!) to help him hook Justice. As Patrick begins to change the game into one with murder as its focus, the game rebels. The Rules steps in to nudge Baker back on track. The locals of Plymouth—non-player characters—pressure Baker to follow his original directive with enticements like free lures, a new “lucky” first mate, and perfect weather. But by this point, Baker is onto this game and doesn’t want to play anymore.
Karen told Baker that Patrick can hear him through his computer. Before The Rules’ reveal that this is all a game, this seems like the pair’s father-son bond is so strong it transcends their greatest passions (fishing and computers) to allow them to connect. But it’s much more literal. They are talking through the computer because Baker is in Patrick’s computer. However, we don’t know that Patrick can see what Baker’s doing when they are not talking. And moreover, there are signs that while Baker is Patrick’s creation, he has evolved into something beyond a simple avatar.
There are snatches of conversation that Baker overhears during his “shower” (skinny dipping in the ocean) that speak of artificial intelligence becoming self-aware. This the core of understanding Serenity. Patrick designed a game based on his late father, who died while serving in the military. He fed in everything he knew—or thought he knew—about Baker’s real-life inspiration. And through so much time working on this world, Patrick designed Baker to the point of self-awareness. Think the cookies in Black Mirror or Janet on The Good Place.
I posit it is not Patrick who has come up with the carnal aspects of the game: that’s all Baker Dill, frustrated fisherman, part-time gigolo, deadbeat dad, and potential savior loosely based on a memory of Patrick’s real dad, John. (Baker Dill is later revealed to be a variant on the name of a principal Patrick admires. So there may be a bit of that unseen character in this complicated captain too.) Then there are the grimy challenges that Baker faces, from sneering sex work, night fishing for profit, and day fishing for his obsession, all on an island that seems to reek of sweat and rotting fish. That’s Patrick. Or more specifically, a bit of adolescent rage he is targeting at the father who left him and his mom, making them vulnerable to a bad man like Frank.
But after all this ugliness, loneliness, bitterness, and depravity, Serenity gives its characters a fittingly unusual happy ending. Baker and Karen team up to hook Justice AND kill Frank. Having been attacked by locals, the battered wife-beater is no match for the mythic and elusive big fish. So when Justice takes off into the depths, he drags Frank—who is strapped to the fishing rod—right off the titular boat and under the waves never to be seen again. But killing his stepdad in a virtual world is not enough for Patrick. Emboldened by his virtual dad, he grabs his real dad’s knife from a clutch of mementos and goes out into the hall. He’ll return covered in blood, having defeated his Boss Level, rescuing himself and his mom from further abuse.
A montage of news coverage ties up the loose ends of exposition. And then we return to Plymouth, where a wearied Baker gets a phone call from Patrick. For the first time, Baker hears the boy who is both his son and father. They are reunited. First by this call, then by Patrick’s plan to redesign the game. The world around Baker shatters into glittering pixels and then reforms. Plymouth 2.0 is not a place of squalor, desperation, and dark obsession, but one of sunshine and joy, where a virtual Patrick gallops down the dock to board Serenity and embrace the dad he wishes he knew.
Header Image Source: Aviron Pictures