Matthew McConaughey’s new thriller “Serenity” earns the title as “one of the most interesting films I’ve ever experienced”. There is nothing like it, it’s a 21st century neo-noir mystery with shades of 1980s thrillers like “Body Heat”, “Dead Calm” and “Fatal Attraction.”
The 2019 year has only begun but, “Serenity” has all the elements to be one of the most ambitious, most challenging and one of the most entertaining thrillers in years. Writer and director Steven Knight’s résumé is so long and varied that it will take some work to see how he arrived at his brilliant film “Serenity”. He’s written David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises”, Bradley Cooper’s “Burnt” and Robert Zemeckis’s “Allied”. If you can believe this one? He co-created “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and the gangster series “Peaky Blinders”. He is an unpredictable writer and director, which will make sense when you see what he comes up with in “Serenity”.
Knight drops us right in the middle of the ocean. We meet McConaughey’s fisherman Baker Dill, who is out with his first mate (“Blood Diamond’s” Djimon Hounsou) and two drunken tourists. Just as his clients are about to reel in a big ol’ tuna, Baker takes a violent charge, threatening his clients with a knife so that he can have a “Moby Dick” like moment to capture the big tuna he has been so desperately trying to catch. Baker Dill lives on a small island called Plymouth Island. Baker fishes, drinks rum and constantly hooks up with a sex-starved woman (Diane Lane), who pays Baker for both sex and companionship, although Baker is only interested in one of the two. He is constantly followed by a mysterious travelling salesman (Jeremy Strong) who is so desperate for a few minutes of Baker’s time. To spice things up even more, Karen (Anne Hathaway) who is both a femme fatale and Baker’s ex wife, walks back into his life with a burning desire to have her husband (Jason Clarke) murdered for the years of endless abuse toward her. Karen and Baker’s preteen computer and math whiz son (Rafael Sayegh) is also affected by the abuse and who we find may or may not be psychically communicating with Baker.
Plymouth Island is the kind of place that is at the end-of-the-line locale where the sugarcane fields are sky-high, the sole bar serves rum by the bottle, and the radio station employs a DJ who constantly implores his listeners to get out there and “catch that damn fish”. It’s a setting that feels like McConaughey is making a sexier version of “Fool’s Gold”. The island is both sultry and keeps you endlessly curious, and every one of Knight’s actors knows how to inhabit the world around them.
McConaughey is at his totally unleashed here, delivering a hyper-absurd performance that feels like something Nicolas Cage would have done, his performance works with what’s to come ahead. It doesn’t feel like McConaughey after his Oscar win. It feels pre-Oscars, circa 2005 during “Sahara” and “Two For The Money”. His performance becomes more impressive with each scene, as Baker agonizes and begins to question not only his place in the world, but with his memories especially after the war in Iraq effed him up. It’s a perfectly cast Matthew McConaughey
Playing Karen’s husband Frank is the always solid Jason Clarke who shows up on Plymouth Island looking like he’s dressed for a Movie Mobster role with expensive loafers, flashy clothes and gleaming jewelry. Jason Clarke plays Frank as so grotesquely evil, we’d certainly root for any shark to have Frank as lunch, should he “fall” into the water.
Steven Knight pulls off his own M Night Shyamalan ending. What Knight does with “Serenity” is a million times better than what Shyamalan created with his ending of the recent “Glass”. To quote one of “Serenity’s” characters, Knight “plays by his own rules”. There’s something to be said for his twist which comes mid movie, that is so monumental that it retroactively transforms the entire movie. It transforms “Serenity” from a seedy, B-movie noir into a high concept juggernaut
The shift is so audacious, in fact, that it will prove to be the dividing point between audiences and critics, with those willing to embrace the weirdness to come and those who will dismiss it as the silliest thing that they have seen in their lives. I have to admit that I loved “Serenity” for its incredible fast pace and it’s sheer lunacy. “Serenity” is completely swinging for the fences. I admired Knight for what he has created and props to him for getting someone to finance the whole endeavor.
But “Serenity” is splashy, it’s weird, it’s wild, and it knows it! And it’s a highly ambitious movie that offers something that fewer and fewer movies do these days….a genuine surprise (in your face Shyamalan!). What’s being sold as a sultry thriller is only what’s on the surface of a movie with an absolutely bonkers twist. Knight actually goes for it, and it pays off for a film that’s far more memorable than just a classic film noir B-movie setup of sex and murder. It’s “alright, alright, alright”.
GRADE: ★★★★ OUT OF ★★★★★