Serenity (2019)

serenity When a thriller becomes, after a calamitous theatrical release, a cult favorite, it’s usually because of some outlandish twists or, more likely, plot elements that shove it into a whole other genre. You thought you were watching a film noir about an unlucky fellow playing the sap for a femme fatale? Ha, it’s actually a western! So Serenity has earned a reputation for being loopy and oblivious to reason, and stuff like this can be fun as hell; you used to get them a lot in the ‘90s, when films like Dead Again, Shattered, and Romeo Is Bleeding inspired hoots and awe in roughly equal measure. I truly wish I could say Serenity took its rightful place alongside those others, but it just isn’t as fun — its weirdness seems to come not from a desire to give juicy pleasure but to provoke deep philosophical thought, and I’m afraid a thriller can commit no greater sin.

The world that writer/director Steven Knight establishes in the first reel or so keeps us hooked for a long time with convincing details and personality quirks. The first scene has more in common with Jaws than we’re expecting it to. Our hero, Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), takes paying customers out on his boat to catch big fish. Baker has his own big fish, a tuna he calls Justice and is obsessed with catching. We settle in for a Hemingwayesque tale, then, but then the genre shifts. Baker is approached by his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway), now married to a rich abuser (Jason Clarke) who beats her and threatens young Patrick, the son Baker and Karen had together. Karen wants Baker to take her hubby out for a fishing trip and then come back without him. She offers $10 million. Will Baker take it? Or will he agree to the task only to rescue his son?

Film noir anti-heroes usually paint themselves into corners. And they were always going to do so; it was fate, and nothing they can do will change that. Serenity takes the determinism of noir about as far as it can go. Maybe the true engine of noir, the thing that keeps us watching, is to explain why a person is trapped. We know Baker is probably going to at least set out to knock evil hubby off the chessboard, but why? What elements conspire to make sure he has no choice? Some of the more recent thrillers answer this by reading from the book of the supernatural. Serenity does something similar, but again, it seems like a cheat. Generally, we in the audience know the events in a fiction movie are not literally happening. We would like to pretend, for a couple of hours, that they are happening, and we would like to care about people who don’t exist, doing things that are not really being done. Serenity frustrates that basic narrative need, and sort of looks down on it. Sometimes I like cold anti-audience experiments like that, but in this case, no.

I’ll tell you why. McConaughey and Hathaway, and in supporting roles Clarke and Djimon Hounsou and Diane Lane, create characters worth caring about, identifying with or hating. The film is beautifully made, shot in luscious tones of gold and blue and gray by Jess Hall, ominously scored by Benjamin Wallfisch. Thrillers can be second only to science fiction in their potential to show off style. I believed in what Steven Knight was telling and showing me. He had created a world worth engaging with. And there are clues throughout — by the time the third character refers to the fish in Baker’s head, we figure it can’t be coincidence. And what of the little feller (Jeremy Strong) who keeps trying to talk to Baker, and who seems to know more than he should? But, knowing of the story what I know now, I can’t come up with any reason why Diane Lane’s character should exist. I mean, I’m happy to see Diane Lane, anyone is, but the movie takes away whatever context her character had. And if you, as a movie, cannot come up with a reason Diane Lane should exist, I cannot come up with a reason you should exist.

Advertisements
Explore posts in the same categories: film noir, thriller

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: