2019 has only just begun, and already its cinema has gifted us a modern marvel. Writer/director Steven Knight’s Serenity is a neo-noir set on a hot and sticky tropical island and headlined by hot and campy stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. But if you think you know what to expect from this January surprise, you don’t know The Rules. Because beneath the surface, this steamy thriller has a jaw-dropping secret. And within that, a curious character who is more mysterious than anything else.
I’ve sung this film’s praises in a spoiler-free review. I’ve dug into its bonkers twist and jaw-dropping ending in a spoiler-packed rundown. I spent the weekend shrugging at Serenity’s D+ Cinemascore, lamenting its 22% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and convincing friends to join me while I witnessed its wonders for the third time. It was their first. They knew no spoilers in advance. They laughed. They gasped. They debated my sanity and sincerity when I said I love, love, love this movie.
Now, it’s time for me to dig into the question of Old Wes. Namely, what’s his deal?
SPOILERS below for Serenity.
In case you missed the wild reveal in the heart of Serenity, I really recommend you check out the spoiler piece first. But a brief refresher: while scraping by on a far-flung island, fisherman Baker Dill (McConaughey) is confronted by his old flame Karen (Hathaway), who offers him a fortune to murder her abusive husband Frank (Jason Clarke). While in the midst of a moral crisis, Dill’s decision is complicated when he discovers his reality is virtual. He is a character in a video game, as is everyone around him. He is the invention of Patrick, a grief-stricken child who grieves his late father (on whom Dill is based) and hates his wife-beating stepfather. But in the background to all this drama is sad Old Wes (John Whiteley).
We first see Old Wes when a dog-tired Dill rolls into the local bar The Rope (formerly The Hope & Anchor). Having recently just lost his last hook of the big tuna he calls Justice, Dill is feeling pretty salty. But he still extends a free drink to the old-timer who sits in the corner, Old Wes. We don’t see much of Old Wes and we learn even less. The bartender warns Baker that Wes grew old chasing that damned fish. And Wes’s only role in the game now seems to be sulking in the corner, a broken man staring solemnly off into the mid-distance while he nurses a glass of rum. But there may be a clue to Wes’s backstory in his unusual absence.
Wes is always in the same seat, off the bar by the door — that is until Dill comes in rattled from the realization that his life is a lie and not even a real life! He rants at the bartender and then takes Old Wes’s empty seat. With the murder plot, the question of his own reality, the expectations of the son he’s never really known all weighing on him, Dill is about ready to fall to pieces. And he does this in Old Wes’s designated space. Which makes me wonder: Is Old Wes an earlier incarnation of Baker Dill?
All we know about Old Wes is that he is a fisherman who was ruined by his quest for that fish and that he is also in a video game. Is he perhaps a piece of decaying code? Once its hard-nosed hero, now reduced to a mute piece of set design or a macabre Easter Egg, not even a non-player-character. When Dill takes Wes’s seat, is his snapping conscience threatening to take the old coot’s place? Maybe Dill is not the first avatar in this game to reach self-awareness. But maybe Wes couldn’t handle the burden. And maybe the creator, Patrick, was already lining up a potential replacement for Dill before he decided to turn the game’s goal from trophy fishing to murder.
When The Rules and the other NPCs are trying to convince Dill to stick to the fishing game and not go all Double Indemnity, they throw a bunch of cheat codes his way. Free lures! Perfect weather! And a plucky first mate who’s said to be “lucky.” This is Constance’s son Sampson (Garion Dowds) who previously was pumping gas in Miami and suspiciously shows up just in the nick of time. But there’s something even stranger about Sampson than his timing.
He’s got a bright white smile, dirty blond curls that tumble along his handsome face and down his back, a bit of scruff for facial hair that makes him look just a shade rugged. And piercing blue eyes. He looks like a younger, less world-wearied McConaughey. Was Sampson a character conceived as Baker Dill 2.0 (or Old Wes 3.0)? Before Dill achieved consciousness and began communing with his son/creator through the computer screen, was Patrick low-key coding his replacement? Or was Sampson a game-generated character purposefully modeled after Dill’s appearance in hopes of using his paternal urges to get him back in line? Forget your “real” boy, who is mopey, wounded, and hiding in the dark of his room. The game can provide a son who smiles and revels in outdoor sport! Or perhaps Patrick designed Sampson as a sort of projection of the son he could have been if his dad hadn’t died? Happy, hardy, sun-kissed and ever-ready, willing, and capable to catch that fish!
Serenity doesn’t give us answers on these dangled questions. But I’m hooked nonetheless.
Header Image Source: Aviron Pictures