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Non-Review Review: Serenity (2019)

Serenity is the story of a grizzled middle aged man and a tuna fish. A tuna fish named “Justice.”

There are many, many problems with Serenity. Indeed, fixing the most obvious problems with Serenity would just reveal a whole new set of problems. It is all recursive. Serenity does not work in either broad stroke or finer detail. It is flawed from the foundation through to the finishing touches. The basic concept of the movie is spectacularly ill-judged, but this impulse towards poor-decision-making branches out to smaller and more intimate moments of dialogue. It is hard to think of a major cinematic release that has been this obviously and fundamentally broken since Book of Henry. Indeed, like Book of Henry, there is a sense that Serenity might possibly live on as a cult bad movie, the kind of film so committed and thoroughly wrong that it becomes a source of pleasure.

The most obvious thing to criticise about Serenity is the central twist, because that is the hinge upon which the movie turns and central point from which so many bad decisions flow. It is big and glaring, flashing like a beacon. Indeed, one of the characters in the film who identifies himself as “the Rules” might describe it as a lighthouse. However, the central twist often feels like a distraction. There have been successful movies that have pulled off bigger twists than Serenity, and which have worked. There are beloved movies that are built around nominally insane plotting developments, but which have managed to walk that finest of lines; The Sixth Sense, Memento, The Usual Suspects.

The issue with Serenity is not so much its admittedly endearingly insane central revelation. The issue is absolutely everything else, including what it does with that major plot twist.

On the surface, Serenity positions itself as a sun-drenched neo-noir. Indeed, the film almost seems like a parody of a classic forties film noir updated for the modern era. Matthew McConaughey plays John Mason, a man living on “Plymouth Island” under the name of Baker Dill. It is later revealed that he stole this alias from his high school maths teacher, for John is very good at maths – as the movie repeatedly demonstrates by having him add up relatively simple equations for the audience’s benefit. John is a decorated war veteran, having served in Iraq. He seems to have come to “Plymouth Island” to escape… something. It is never clear entirely what.

John spends his days fishing in the harbour. His boat is named “Serenity.” He takes tourists out on expeditions, but he’s not very good at it. He has a tendency to rip the fishing rod from their hands at the climactic moment so that he might wrestle with the beast itself. John is nurturing an obsession with a nigh-legendary tuna fish that stalks the waters off the coast of the island. John’s obsession is itself the subject of much rumour and speculation by the island’s residents. “Me and the boys are saying you should give him a name,” the barman helpfully tells John. John responds. “I already gave him a name.” McConaughey holds the beat. “It’s Justice.” Yes, that’s right. John is hunting a tuna fish called “Justice.”

Serenity is not a script that values nuance or subtlety. Characters repeatedly suggest to John that the fish (and therefore, allegorically, the very concept of “Justice”) is nothing but an illusion and that John has divorced himself from reality. “There’s money in fishing for swordfish at night,” the barman assures John. “No asshole tourists on board. Lionel pays grunts who can fly fish too.” McConaughey holds the beat again, for clarity. “I fish for tuna.” The barman responds, “You fish for one tuna, John. And that’s a tuna that’s only in your head.” Later, a worker at a supply centre directly challenges John, concerned for his well-being, “You do know he’s just in your head, right?”

To be fair to Serenity, there is a sense that at least some of this clumsiness is intentional. The style is deliberately heightened. The narrative often feels like it was written by a kid who watched too many black-and-white film noir stories, eschewing concepts like metaphors and jumping straight for similes. The childish nature of the characterisation within Serenity is endearingly surreal and almost makes sense in terms of how the story develops. However, it creates an even more jarring and unsettling contrast with the movie’s strange fascination with sex and violence. Again, there is something inherently childish about this; it feels like the work of a frustrated and confused teenager. However, it does not make for a good story.

In order to pay for his tuna obsession, John moonlights as a gigalo. He seemingly has one client, an older woman played by Diane Lane. Given the revelations later in the script, the relationship between John and his client is certainly one of the strangest narrative choices in a film packed with strange narrative choices; the questions that this relationship raises in terms of the third-act revelation perhaps explain why the second half of the film so eagerly and consciously sidelines the character in question. John describes himself as “a hooker who can’t afford hooks.” There is an inordinate amount of time spend on the question of whether John can feed her “kitty”, which sets the tone for the rest of the film.

John’s existence is upended when Karen arrives. Karen is his ex-wife, a girl that he has known since school. The two have a son together, although John has not seen the boy in years. Though Karen insists that John is still connected to their son, the child is being raised by Karen’s abusive husband Frank. Again, Serenity is not a movie that does subtle. Frank arrives on the island, played by Josh Clarke and looking like Don Johnson’s id. Frank is the very definition of a “piece of work.” He is abusive towards both Karen and her son Patrick. At one point, in order for the movie to underscore how horrible Frank is, he openly boasts about wanting to anally rape some children.

Again, this typifies the weird obsession with sex and violence that runs through Serenity. This is a film with a spectacularly awful sense of tone. Naturally, befitting the familiar structures and rhythms of the film noir, John and Karen hook up. Karen seduces John by referencing the night they got married. “You said I was finally old enough. First time for me. First time ever.” It’s staggeringly creepy, but no less creepy than the moment when John grabs Karen, bends her over, rips the back of her shirt open and discovers the marks of Frank’s abusive. The sex scene stops. “We’re both broken,” Karen asserts. “We’re just broken in different ways.” Then the sex scene continues, only to stop about twenty seconds later when John pulls back and declares, “It’s over. I win.”

Serenity has a weird and warped view of human sexuality. To be fair, this makes a certain amount of sense given subsequent revelations. It is very clear why the movie is placing a lot of these ideas, particularly about sex and violence, so prominently in the narrative. However, the issue is that these sorts of ideas need to be handled with some delicacy and compassion. Serenity seems to want to tell a story about abuse and trauma, particularly sexualised abuse and trauma, but does this in the most ham-fisted manner possible. It is aiming for something profound and moving, but ends up at something tacky and tawdry. Serenity is staggeringly self-important considering its starting premise, let alone where the story actually develops.

The twist in Serenity is an interesting beast. It is the rare twist that is both painfully obvious and completely insane, a pretty great combination. Genre-savvy audience members will likely guess the twist from the opening shot, although a number of helpful inserts will allow slower viewers to catch up. Indeed, readers of this review might also be able to piece together some of the basic outline. As such, the twist doesn’t come out of left-field or with no warning. It is signposted and set-up, sometimes clunkily. It is very obvious, for example, when elements of Serenity exist to set up the twist rather than to further the plot, including characters’ obsessions or interests.

At the same time, the actual twist is breathtaking. It is not without precedent. Indeed, there’s an element of nineties nostalgia to some of the revelations. However, what really pushes Serenity over the edge is its commitment to the twist. It is not the twist itself, but what the movie does with the twist. Indeed, the end of the film is really something, as the film follows that (outlandish) twist to a (completely insane) conclusion. What is more impressive is how self-seriously Serenity approaches this. Most movies would be content with a sharp twist, but Serenity doubles down. Serenity is convinced that it has something profound and important to say using that twist, a meaningful exploration of the human condition sandwiched between Anne Hathaway purring “daddy.”

Serenity wants to be an earnest meditation on ideas of morality and spirituality – and, yes, “justice.” One supporting character solemnly warns John not to kill Frank. “God exists.” Another seems confused at the moral unravelling of the universe. “Why has the Creator changed the rules?” This is a movie that pitches itself as a battle for one person’s soul, but also as a vehicle for exploring the battle for all people’s souls. There’s something quite endearing in how much Serenity commits to this pseudo-profundity. However, it just doesn’t gel with the absurdly heightened elements, the cartoonish characterisation, the off-the-wall twist and the clunky dialogue. Serenity is trash, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But Serenity is trash that believes itself to be a masterpiece.

There’s a strangely compelling quality in watching Serenity‘s self-image collide with reality. Just not in the way that Serenity itself would seem to want.

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