My (slightly spoilery) notes on Serenity (2019).
This weird multi-genre puzzle from British writer-director Steven Knight (Locke) makes several very peculiar decisions even before it gets going. Admittedly, the Joss Whedon Firefly spinoff came out well over a decade ago, but surely that Serenity still pops up on search engines and cable schedules so often that this Serenity will get confused with it? And the film is only called Serenity because it’s the name of the protagonist’s boat – which is true of the Whedon too – when it could very easily be titled Saucy Sue, Pequod II or the Good Ship Lollipop without making a blind bit of difference.
Equally odd, on a minor level, is that the hero hiding out incognito on suspiciously idyllic Plymouth Island uses the alias ‘Baker Dill’ because he had a favourite teacher called Dylan Baker, who isn’t connected at all to the character actor from Happiness and the Spider-Man films. Maybe it’s all to do with throwing the viewer off-balance from the start, though that is achieved when Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong), in corporate suit and tie, starts paddling across sandbars toting a sample fish-location gadget seems hilariously primitive. Thoroughly ripped and often naked Dill (Matthew McConaughey) runs a macho fishing boat business with a ton of Hemingwayesque overtones as he cops bits of tourist-baiting business from Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not and has an obsession with a big tuna called Justice in homage to the fish-chaser of The Old Man and the Sea. Dill is in psychic contact with a son (Rafael Sayegh) he’s never known, suffers PTSD memory losses from his time in Iraq, and supplements his income by having sex for cash with a local cougar (Diane Lane, who is all of four years older than McConaughey). While Reid runs around trying to connect with Dill, a film noir plot sizzles as his slinky blonde ex Karen (Anne Hathaway) shows up and tries to hire him to take her abusive, connected husband Frank (Jason Clarke) out to sea and kill him. Imagine this with Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell and Raymond Burr – though that’d be in black and white rather than travelogue cerulean and fleshtone. Of the principle cast, only Clarke really gets into the sleaze melodrama vibe – and manages to be utterly repulsive as the big shot tourist leering at the prospect of ‘ten dollar ass’ down by the commercial dock.
… okay, if you want to see this and come to the big reveal fresh, stop reading here and pop back for the conclusion of the review (beneath the pictures) …
That psychic link, which includes a homoerotic underwater nude man-boy swimlove scene, keeps glitching, and we can’t help but note supporting characters (Djimon Hounsou as Walter Brennan) are one-note even for a top-shelf sexy thriller … while the island where everyone knows everyone’s business starts to seem like a hamster wheel, but is transparently related to the son’s self-designed computer game fantasy. It does have a few decent pullbacks – Dill digs out larger and larger scale maps to find Plymouth alone in bigger and bigger seas, as if it were the world’s only island – and the tangle of plot comes together reasonably well, if only in a manner that makes fools of us for following about an upfront plot that’s just a runaround while the real action is barely glimpsed.
The plight of an avatar who attains self-awareness has a Tronish edge, but McConaughey just seems rum-soaked and bewildered by it all – and the most interesting thread, that the interior architecture of a gameworld might want to stick to gentler challenges like finding lost cats or counting fish rather than turn into a first-person-stabber killfest, is dropped. If – and it’s by no means certain – we’re to take the whole film as taking place in the slightly out-of-control dreamworld of a 15-year-old shut-in, then the kid’s browser history presumably involves 1990s rum adverts (remember Ray from Reef Radio?), 1950s RKO programmers, youtube seafishing videos, and gay incest porn. No wonder his stepdad wants him to quit staring at the computer and come outside to throw a few balls around.