Serenity, the latest film by Oscar-nominated writer Steven Knight (also largely successful on TV), boasts two Oscar-winning actors as leads and another two Oscar nominees in its small supporting cast. Regardless, it’s been dumped into theatres during the cursed month of January, and you’ve probably never heard of it until this very moment. Add in the fact that it’s currently sitting at a 21% on Rotten Tomatoes, and all signs indicate the movie must be pretty bad, right?
Well, the real answer’s a tad more complicated.
Serenity is bad, yes. But it’s the rare type of bad, one you relish like a fine wine — a perfect storm of hubris, grand ambition and laughable storytelling. The film is being sold as a throwback to steamy neo-noirs along the lines of Body Heat and The Last Seduction. Its true nature is far too bonkers to spoil here; just know that two-thirds into the running time, Knight blindsides viewers with a twist so harebrained and audacious that it doesn’t just pull the rug out from underneath you, it firebombs the whole foundation of the house and proceeds to piss on the ashes. Like 2017’s The Book of Henry, this is a colossal misfire whose cult status seems inevitable and is certainly well-warranted.
Matthew McConaughey portrays Baker Dill (sure to go down as the best character name from 2019) with the same grizzled determination he’s given since his post-True Detective comeback several years back. Dill comes straight out of the Noir Films for Dummies handbook — a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, morally ambiguous loner harnessing the sexual stamina of a colt and grumbling lines like, “I’m just waiting on some things back home to lose their significance.” Not to mention he bathes every morning by jumping nude off a cliff into the crystal-blue island waters outside the refurbished storage unit he calls home. He’s less an actual character and more the faint echo of one you’ve seen in better, smarter films.
When his ex-wife (Anne Hathaway) walks into the bar Dill frequents on a stormy night — asking him to kill her monstrous new husband in exchange for $10 million — the narrative only appears to want to trace over the outline of a plot from countless potboilers. Hathaway’s femme fatale, of course, may or may not be manipulating Dill for her own purposes, although once we meet the husband in question (Jason Clarke), there’s no doubt the dude is Pure Evil, given the hilariously over-the-top manner in which he drunkenly leers and growls insults at everyone he encounters. Like McConaughey, these other two characters are nothing more than caricatures to serve the simplistic plot — cheap plastic gears in what feels like Fisher Price’s version of a dumbed-down noir vehicle.
Not that Serenity isn’t engaging. In fact, the first two acts maintain the breezy accessibility of genuine Lifetime movie trash. The exotic island setting is filmed with bright, glossy colors and the cinematography is just competent enough to justify a theatrical release. There’s also some fitfully amusing hackery here, like the repeated use of a twirling camera technique to introduce characters which looks like a trick borrowed from an HBO softcore porno, as well as a sex scene that zeroes in on McConaughey’s thrusting buttocks straight out of The Room. Without the third act twist, though, it would only be a notch above that of disposable schlock.
Serenity truly becomes a sight to behold in that late twist, which rockets it out of generic-thriller territory and into what resembles the dumbest Black Mirror episode ever made. This is not one of those shocking revelations akin to The Sixth Sense where everything you’ve seen beforehand now has newfound significance. If anything, the preceding hour only makes less sense. There really is no way of guessing how batshit things are going to get until it’s too late, and therein lies Serenity’s awful, beautiful power.
From that point on, Serenity’s story dives head-first into moronic oblivion, and McConaughey’s performance gleefully follows suit. As Dill’s world crumbles around him, McConaughey becomes increasingly sweaty and wild-eyed, chugging inhuman amounts of rum and screaming into the void with reckless abandon. It’s as if the actor understood how far off the rails Serenity was by that point and decided to go down with the ship.
Serenity isn’t going to be for most people. Those walking in on the trailer’s marketing of cheap thrills and sex appeal will be flabbergasted when they find an oddly unsexy potboiler that loses its mind entirely by the end. As the credits rolled, I resisted the urge to turn to the middle-aged couple behind me and ask their thoughts. However, if you’re the kind of moviegoer who can appreciate something so ill-advised it’s a wonder any studio would allow it to be made in the first place, an exercise in woefully misguided intentions, then Serenity is the first must-see film of 2019.