In the cold, dull embrace of midwinter cinema, a movie like Serenity looks like a sun-soaked oasis. It ticks every box on our mental escape checklist: tropical island setting, mostly naked Matthew McConaughey, an ex-wife with a dark secret and darker roots, and the essential noir tropes of sex, murder and revenge. Had there been any real advertising for the movie, surely these are the details the commercials would have focused on—and yet there were no commercials, because test audiences saw blood in the water and rightfully sent the movie’s distributor running. To their dismay, Serenity’s promised paradise was just a mirage.
Packed to the gills with parody-level dialogue that is only later explained by a silly jaw-to-the-floor twist, Steven Knight’s new film operates more like a meta movie-within-a-movie than something that’s actually in theaters this very moment. Upon scrutiny, it’s challenging to understand how much of this is actually intentional—post-twist, some things start to add up, while others fall apart completely. But as it stands, Serenity’s fleeting moments of fun absurdity and over-the-top performances aren’t enough to make up for the odd, uncomfortable flatness that defines the rest of the film.
Serenity opens on the tight close-up of a boy’s face, and zooms in, in, in on his eye until seemingly passing through it, the image morphing into the waves of the open ocean. This remarkably contrived opener does a lot of heavy lifting: It shows us just how unsubtle the direction is going to be—as if warning us that we can’t get mad later because we knew what we were getting into—while gesturing toward the big twist from which the story derives all of its meaning.
We quickly meet Baker Dill, Matthew McConaughey’s gruff, suntanned Iraq veteran who captains a small charter fishing boat (named Serenity!) off the coast of a fictional Caribbean outpost, Plymouth Island. Wise yet jaded, alcoholic yet impossibly toned, Dill could be any of the characters McConaughey’s played in the years since accepting his 2014 Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, simply tossed into the new circumstances of island life. He’s so obsessed with catching a massive tuna he literally named “Justice” that he keeps forgetting to make any money, and threatening tourists on your boat with a knife does not a booming business make.
So, he caves and starts catching swordfish at night, while still hunting Justice by day and sleeping with nosy neighbor Constance (a horribly underserved Diane Lane) for cash at dawn and dusk. Constance is always playfully pleading with Dill to “find her kitty,” a gross-out euphemism confused by the fact she does actually seem to have a cat that wanders the island. Don’t think too hard.
As if on cue, Dill’s estranged ex-wife Karen, played by a shockingly blond and vampy Anne Hathaway, walks into the island’s only bar and introduces some conflict. Her second husband Frank (an appropriately loathsome Jason Clarke) is a terrible, cruel drunk who has been abusing her and her son Patrick for years, you see, so if Dill could please take him out on the ocean, get him loaded and feed him to the sharks, she would be ever so grateful. Oh, and she’ll give him 10 million dollars. We also learn that Baker Dill’s real name is John, which he changed for mysterious reasons, and that he had Patrick with Karen before leaving for Iraq. He seems to have a near telepathic connection with the boy (hello, Interstellar) and therefore takes Karen’s proposal seriously, but not before telling her, like his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) and businessman Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong), to get off his damn boat. As he attempts to choose between Justice the tuna and justice the concept, his self-perception begins to muddy—and things get complicated.
Anne Hathaway manages to be one of the film’s greatest highs and lowest lows, simultaneously. Peaking with her Oscar-winning performance as Fantine in 2012’s Les Misérables, Hathaway went through a period of being labeled a try-hard, the public punishment for an actress who gives every performance 120 percent, for better or worse. While this theater-kid energy might be lost on more subtle roles, it flourishes in the absurd melodrama that is Karen in Serenity. In her summer-white Miami get-ups and weird blond dye-job, Hathaway delivers lines like it’s first day on the set of Dynasty, and there’s no doubt that was the direction she was given. Against a more muted McConaughey, she comes off as completely ridiculous, like an alien dropped from another planet—but you can’t fault her for giving the script her all.
On paper, Serenity looks a lot like 1981’s Body Heat, a neo-noir classic so full of style and character and actual sex appeal that it doesn’t need to flip the tropes to succeed. But all resemblance ends when you dive an inch below the surface and realize that Serenity is only using the genre as a puppet for a much less interesting concept, one that, once revealed, isn’t explored or interrogated very much at all. Other movies and television shows have succeeded as high-concept pieces that are fun and strange and challenge their audience, but Serenity can’t seem to shake off the terminally bad writing and earnest finale that weigh it down. Were it a campier, edgier, bigger movie that leaned into the absurdity of its twist, it might have been fun. Looks like vacation will have to wait. ◆
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou and Jeremy Strong. Written and directed by Steven Knight. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, Seaport, South Bay and the suburbs.