Usually, critics are allotted one rating per movie. Most of the time this works out, since most films, mess or masterpiece, clearly achieve, partially achieve or fall short of a particular tone and aesthetic. What’s promised in the first ten minutes usually comes to pass or fails to appear by the final ten. If there’s a revelation or a set piece that dazzles or disappoints, drastically changing what we thought we’d get out of the flick, it’s usually connected to the steady course charted by cast and crew. Even subversive, genre-bending material can be somewhat categorized and understood in a way that summarizes what kind of an audience might hate it or love it. But every so often, the regular critical approach falls short. Every so often, along comes something like Serenity, a hypnotically bizarre, bug-eyed nuts, deliciously stupid, endlessly entertaining cluster of a schlockfest that you might just hate. Or love. Or simply be confused by.
Yet, as much as I was captivated by it, I can’t quite declare Serenity a “good” movie viewers should flock to the theaters to see. (I can say, “Beware the blatantly wrong-headed marketing campaign.”) So, for this film, let’s break it into three separate grades. (The reader can decide which grades matter the most.)
Serenity was written and is directed by Steven Knight, who previously penned a bunch of terrific dark and moody thrillers like Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, and wrote and directed the single-location Tom Hardy powerhouse Locke. The film stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway—prestige talent for what the marketing so desperately wants to sell as a prestige thriller—and the plot seems ripped straight from one of those mid-budget pieces of self-consciously serious but semi-pulpy adult-oriented genre fare that Hollywood mostly left behind after the ’90s.
McConaughey is a loner fisherman named Baker, who escaped to a remote island and changed his name years ago in order to get away from his troubled past. As it does to all noir protagonists, that past catches up with Baker, here in the form of his estranged ex-wife, Karen (Hathaway), who has tracked him down for a single purpose: She wants Baker to kill her abusive mob boss husband, Frank (Jason Clarke). Will Baker go down this sinful path, also saving his son (Rafael Sayegh) from Frank’s wrath, or will he listen to his better angels and avoid dooming his soul? It sounds like a pretty clear-cut premise we can expect from a movie of this caliber. Yet Knight makes some bafflingly pedestrian choices, up to a point where his work evokes the blatant melodrama of a Lifetime Channel domestic thriller rather than a major Hollywood release.
The acting is annoyingly mannered. The writing is juvenile and on the nose, to the point where the same plot information is repeated every two minutes just in case the audience suffers from extreme short-term memory loss. The depicted sexual abuse and violence is edgy in a way that only a 12-year-old boy would find titillating. The direction randomly conflates many tones and genres, which includes bullet-time shots that appear out of nowhere, as if the movie is hijacked by an early ’00s action flick for five seconds at a time. Sitting through the first half, it’s hard not to wonder how so many talented people could sign up for something so tacky. Didn’t they know any better? To this point, as a gritty but lush R-rated thriller with hints of a ’40s noir throwback, Serenity gets a 2.
Then comes a nutso midpoint twist as the film reveals itself as an ambitious, high-concept cocktail of disparate genres geared toward an audience that appreciates boldness and originality, coupled with a dash of pseudo-psychological gobbledygook. (In this incarnation, I’ll give it a 5.) On one hand, I have to give it to Knight’s ability to pull a fast one on the audience, coming up with a fairly unpredictable way of not only explaining the ridiculous shortcomings of the first half, but also suggesting that the blatant cheesiness was the point all along. There are at least five very different movies that come to mind as various bits of obvious inspiration for the twist, but naming even one of them would ruin the fun. Unfortunately, once we get our bearings about what’s really going on, we’re saddled with a third act that switches back to overwrought melodrama, with an ill-advised, nonsensical—even within the confines of this craziness—and overtly schmaltzy conclusion.
Still, for folks who have an unapologetic fascination with this kind of rare schlock, intentional or unintentional, Serenity gets a 9. This is the kind of future cult classic that should be fodder for every one of those podcasts where a group of comedians get together and dissect how bonkers the whole movie is. Does it warrant the kind of ridicule that should be reserved for “so bad it’s good” staples? Not entirely, since it generally achieves what it sets out to do, even if that mission is a bit boggling to begin with. I can imagine and understand it receiving all kinds of passionate feedback, from intensely negative to downright infuriated, but I doubt anyone will claim it is boring. You can do your own math of how its scores add up. As for myself, I’ll be talking about Serenity to anyone willing to listen, if only to prove that this movie was not some fever dream born from a critic’s mental breakdown.
Director: Steven Knight
Writer: Steven Knight
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, Jeremy Strong, Rafael Sayegh
Release Date: January 25, 2019
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.