The Herald Reviews: Serenity

Four Oscar nominees, two winners, a celebrated screenwriter and a setting you’d kill for. What could go wrong? The Herald reviews the sultry, stylish thriller Serenity, with a twist that will have movie buffs talking for years.


On paper, Serenity is everything you want, no, need, out of an early year popcorn flick. An ace cast buoyed by a pair of Oscar winners in Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, a screenwriter (and in this case director) who has penned some of the 21st centuries most gripping and emotionally taxing works (Eastern Promises is a dark and grizzled masterpiece and I won’t hear any different!) and a thinly veiled premise that will lure in casual film-goers looking for a night out, and those who indulge on the pulp of modern day neo-noir thrillers, yearning to dive a little bit deeper.

Yes, on paper Steven Knight’s Serenity had so much going for it. On paper at least.

The story is simple enough. McConaughey plays Baker Dill, a tortured fishing boat captain on a Moby Dick-esque quest to bag the tuna that got away that he affectionally dubs ‘Justice.’ He’s joined by his widowed first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou), who puts up with his captain’s drinking and life’s goal turned obsession which threatens the very fabric of his sanity, and that of the pairs livelihoods as Dill botches job after job in the name of the great catch. It’s all simple enough, if not for underlying metaphors that raise from the murky surface a bit later.

Dill is your archetypal wounded anti-hero – a sogged and strung out pessimist who has been dealt enough dead heads by life to write the book on the subject. He haunts the local watering hole, ducks out on a frantic businessmen always seconds too late (played by a particularly robotic Jeremy Strong) and prostitutes himself (essentially) to the equally enigmatic, and woefully underdeveloped Constance (played by Oscar nominee Diane Lane). Money woes, a dark past, potential substance abuse problems rooted in PTSD, we’ve seen it all before, but there’s a tension in the mystery set to unfold that at least holds interest through the first half of the copy-and-paste styled thriller.

Enter Karen Zariakas (played by Oscar winner Hathaway), a ghost from Dill’s past carrying scares both visible and not. She comes to Dill with a proposition. Take her abusive husband Frank (played with over-the-top villain bravado by Jason Clarke), get him good and lubricated by liquor, and dump him over the side of the vessel for shark food. Feign ignorance or accident and life goes on living.

The catch? Karen is Dill’s ex who cold-as-ice fooled around and left him for her now repulsive husband while Dill was – get this – deployed overseas as a member of the armed forces. Ouch.

Naturally, Dill is reluctant, and still bitter as hell, to help his recently returned lost loved, even when she offers him $10 million in cold hard cash to do the deed (the family is connected in shady dealings in Miami, and all that jazz).

But Karen has an ace in the hole in the form of her and Baker’s love child Patrick (played by newcomer Rafel Sayegh), who Karen insists is in as much danger as she is in a home occupied by the violent and temperamental Frank.

So there’s your classic fork in the road for ol’ Baker Dill. Be the good man, the righteous man, and don’t strike off one-or-two of the ten commandments – and the big ones at that – or be the knight in shining armour for the family he thought long lost in the ocean tides.

It all seems that simple, a fine, if not underwhelming noir styled thriller that is serviceable enough as a pallet cleanser for bigger and better fish to fry in 2019. That is, until the film does a ludicrous 180 degree backflip of a twist that had me in near fits of gut-busting laughter.

The Hitchcock’s and Shyamalan’s of film history couldn’t concoct such a bombastic, brazen and mind-bending (in ways both good and bad) shock to the system that totally makes you question every second, minute and sentence that comes before. Bravo for that, if nothing else. And no, you’ll need to experience that one for yourself. All the scholarly writers and journalistic award winning authors couldn’t properly explain this one.

I took a beat before I wrote this review. The best things in life marinade, so I thought time and reflection might give me time to digest the sheer cluster that was Serenity. I’m as confounded today as I was at first viewing. Films scarcely do that, so count that as a win.

Viewers searching for the next sun soaked thriller in the vein of Into the Blue will leave positively in fury, while those who love a good bottom of the ninth Hail Mary, go-for-broke style implosion of basic plot sanity might applaud the audacity.

I’m still not sure. My money is on the idea that Serenity is regarded fondly as a cult classic of the highest order decades down the road, long removed from the slings and arrows of critics like me, who may miss the deeper pathos behind 2019’s most bizarre film by a mile.

Serenity is now playing in theatres nation wide. For tickets at Scotiabank Theatre St. John’s, click here

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