Steven Knight has done many, many great things in the entertainment industry, from creating one of the best shows of the millennium with Peaky Blinders, to giving us great Tom Hardy performances in the very restrained Locke and the wild Taboo. Knight can intrigue the viewer with a movie like Hummingbird (I’m still mad they changed the name to Redemption), but very rarely does he bewilder the audience. Yet, with his latest film, Serenity, Steven Knight has not only bewildered myself, but he may have just released one of the dumbest movies to have ever existed — a movie so full of itself and so tied to its insane third act that the only thing that keeps this ship above water are the performances from a cast who all seem to kind of know what movie they’re in (and it is not their fault that those performances vary so wildly from each other)
Serenity begins with Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) aboard a fishing boat with his first mate, Duke (Djimon Hounsou), just off the coast of Plymouth Island. They’re not doing too hot financially, and so have started charging passengers to come aboard in order to give them the chance to fish for some really big tuna. However, Dill is focused on one, singular fish — and unsurprisingly, he has named it “Justice.” Things become complicated when his ex-wife, Karen (Anne Hathaway), shows up to ask Dill for a very big favor. She wants her abusive husband (Jason Clarke) to be brought out to sea and killed. But on Plymouth Island, nothing is as it seems…
Such is the hook that Knight hangs his hat on. It’s an interesting set up, where the payoff could be grounded, or it could be utterly insane. It won’t take long into Serenity to know that it’s going to be the latter. Shrouded in mystery, there are occasional glimpses of the third act twist that will have your mind racing to the finish line before it even gets there. That’s not to say the movie gives its hand away — because it ultimately manages to find a few good ideas to explore — but it is just too caught up in its master plan to really delve into its smaller concepts. And you probably won’t guess what exactly is happening, because no idea that anyone could possibly conceive would be as disastrous as the one Steven Knight goes with.
Serenity reaches for the stars in terms of plotting, but the film never looks down as its making its ascent. The entire character of Baker Dill is comprised of a past that the movie barely seems concerned about — unless it matters to the giant reveal. Character interactions are all in service of a grander narrative, and it’s not hard to see the noir elements of Hathaway’s character, or the cartoon villainy of Clarke’s character, being pivotal to Dill’s own contemplations on fate and luck. What is difficult is trying to care even the slightest about a story that doesn’t even care about its first two acts, and then has the gall to offer up what it does for a third act.
I have celebrated directors doing dumb, weird, over-the-top plots before; I’ll go to bat for something like Jupiter Ascending or A Cure for Wellness (oddly enough, Benjamin Wallfisch does the bombastic, middling score for this movie after doing two great scores with A Cure for Wellness and Blade Runner 2049) — ambition is inherently interesting. Making your screenplay feel like every moment matters takes an exhausting amount of focus and dedication, which of course can have incredible results…if it pays off. Serenity is what happens when you only care about the reveal, yet despite that reveal being in your sights, you can never reach it because you haven’t laid any of the groundwork to care. The screenplay here just leaves a trail of foreshadowing focusing on creating mystery, but lets everything else suffer.
This includes the talented cast that are trapped in one-dimensional roles. Hathaway might as well exist within a noir film, while Clarke revels within the 1930s gangster character he so perfectly embodies. In fact, Clarke might give the best performance, as it feels like the only restraint put in place for him is to not feel act a real person, ever. Jeremy Strong is this weird, enigmatic presence that is purposefully a mystery until he is not, and Diane Lane is wasted as a person that Baker Dill only goes to for money and sex. But most egregious of all is McConaughey, who restrains himself to a performance that consists of being annoyed or being confused, with virtually no shades in between. He gets more to do when the film opens up, but by then it’s too late.
Being too late is the biggest crime with Serenity. If it didn’t waste its first two acts solely alluding to something bigger, this wouldn’t be such a hot mess. It would still be bad, but hedging all your bets on the endgame of your film is far worse than on a handful of scenes. Had the initial plot been the focus, perhaps things could have been salvaged. Perhaps. But instead, Serenity is the worst imaginable outcome of all of this talent coming together. Knight needs to stay away from high-concept ideas, and just continue writing deep dives into characters. I guess occasionally you get bored just fishing for that big tuna. Sometimes you just need to kill a man.