A big, head-turning twist is hard to accomplish in any movie, but Serenity lives and dies by its twist, largely to the detriment of the film. Other than being completely nonsensical, the dialogue is cringe-worthy and writer/director Steven Knight tries his hardest to make the film a dramatic and thrilling spectacle, but falls short.
Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fisherman on the very small island of Plymouth, where everyone knows everything about everything. He’s lived there for a long time and, after thinking he’d left his old life behind, his ex-wife, Karen (Anne Hathaway) shows up. She explains that her current husband, Frank (Jason Clarke), has been abusing her for years and strikes a deal with Baker: she’ll pay him millions of dollars in cash if he promises to take Frank out fishing and then “accidentally” throw him overboard for the sharks. Baker’s immediate response is no, but Karen is desperate for him to say yes while the audience has to watch her be abused and talked down to at every turn. (The movie also does its best to convince us that McConaughey and Hathaway are the same age, which is ridiculous.)
There’s a lot of repetition in the film, and for good reason. Baker wakes up every morning at 5:00 am, goes down to his boat and sets sail, with his primary goal being to catch the big prize tuna no one but him believes exists. Afterward, he heads to his second job, that of a sex worker, before heading back home to do the same thing over and over again. Every day is almost the same, until one day it isn’t. The one glitch in the whole thing–and on Plymouth Island there are no major glitches because everything is seemingly perfect and serene–is the arrival of Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong), a fish company agent whose job is to sell Baker a fish-catching machine, but instead alerts him to something strange going on. Baker’s shocked by the revelations following his meeting with Reid and the effects it has on his entire existence, so he decides to take things into his own hands at the risk of destroying everything he’s ever known about his reality.
Once Serenity really gets going, it becomes more obvious why the characters are acting the way they are. More specifically, Anne Hathaway’s very noir-esque performance upon introduction is eyebrow raising. In the scope of the film, her performance is the one that most clearly hits the mark and hints at something being off from the start. As the film progresses, her actions, attitude, and personality become more clear, especially given the reveal. On the other hand, McConaughey isn’t able to strike that same balance with his performance. The circumstances for Karen and Baker are different, but once the plot truly reveals itself, Baker’s feelings, words, and his attitude toward Karen don’t add up and are a source of frustration even the ending can’t shake off.
The film is so wrapped up in its own ingenuity that it doesn’t realize its cleverness is also its biggest weakness simply because it doesn’t know what it aims to be. There’s also a sense of arrogance in its delivery of twists and the dialogue alone is unbearably bad, with Baker blaming his fishing partner, Duke (an underutilized Djimon Hounsou), for their bad luck following the death of his wife. After he has sex with Karen, he says, “That’s it … I win,” like it’s some sort of contest. It’s atrocious. What’s also concerning is the treatment of Karen and the things she says make it very obvious it’s written by a man and she is usually disrespected and painfully used by both Baker, Frank, and, if I’m being honest, by her son, Patrick (Ralph Sayegh).
Serenity has a trippy and crazy plot, one that might have worked somehow if it had even an iota of focus. Its buildup is practically nonexistent, though, and overly reliant on getting to the big twist, leaving other matters in the dust. The film turns trauma into an outlet, but primarily for Patrick. The trauma that Karen has to face is never really addressed beyond being a plot point because once the twist is disclosed, her point of view becomes invalidated by the narrative and so it becomes far more about Patrick’s pain than hers.
Any potential for Serenity is bogged down by bad writing and twists that come off as congratulatory pats on the back for being clever more than anything else. The film is slow to pick up the pace and, besides Hathaway’s performance, which is a highlight, Serenity lacks any thrill, entertainment value, and sense.