Many people think of tropical islands as paradise on earth. There are beaches, endless sunlight, and drinks with little umbrellas in them. But if you stop and think about it, the concept of an island is also a prison. There is nowhere to go. You see a lot of the same people. Without an opportunity to escape, even paradise can feel suffocating. That is the tension behind Serenity, a thriller that defies tidy explanation. Aside from the island where it takes place, the constraints of traditional criticism are not equipped to do this film justice. It is too bonkers for that.
The setting is the easy part. Plymouth Island has all the trappings of a gorgeous, seductive resort. Tourists go there for the relaxation, and along with tourism, fishing is the main revenue source. Steven Knight, who wrote and directed the film, strikes an uneasy balance of picturesque vistas and something more ominous. Some shots look a travel commercial, while others are suffocating, even claustrophobic. Maybe Knight grew frustrated with a setting that normally would function like a director’s playground.
It starts as a typical neo-noir. Our hero is Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), a hard-drinking fisherman obsessed by the gargantuan tuna he cannot catch. All his relationships are uneasy and transactional: he thinks his assistant (Djimon Hounsou) brings him bad luck, and since he’s borderline destitute, his lover (Diane Lane) gives him cash after their trysts. A femme fatale presents Baker with an opportunity, as she must. Anne Hathaway plays Karen, Baker’s ex-wife, and she visits Plymouth with a simple offer: if Baker kills Karen’s abusive new husband (Jason Clarke) on a fishing trip, she will give him $10 million. Serenity follows Baker as he considers the offer, but a mysterious stranger (Jeremy Strong) suggests things are not what they seem.
It is strange that a film with a cast last like this is being dropped in late-January, a period when studios traditionally offload properties in which they have little confidence. It is doubly strange because Knight is an accomplished screenwriter and director: his credits include Dirty Pretty Things, which got him an Academy Award nomination, and he’s the creator of the wildly popular Netflix show Peaky Blinders. There is a reason for the January release date, but there’s no way to explain more without revealing too much. Let’s just say the film has a lot on its mind, exploring the nature of destiny and existence itself. There’s even a character nicknamed “The Rules,” and his very nature is a metaphor for what the human imagination can accomplish. This is heady stuff, and it mostly pulls it off, alongside gratuitous shots of McConaughey’s butt.
The conceit behind Serenity is a lot to take in, but it somehow holds together. That is thanks to performances that strike a balance between archetype and parody. As the boorish husband, Clarke chews the scenery and gives McConaughey’s character every reason to follow through with the plan. Hathaway and McConaughey last worked together on Interstellar, and here they jettison their natural chemistry in service of seduction scenes anchored by bizarre, striking incongruity – as if they are acting in separate movies – but once the full film comes to view, the discord has a logic to it. There is no sense that these actors are winking at the audience: under Knight’s direction, everyone is totally sincere, so some moments may eventually veer into high camp. To his credit, McConaughey’s performance is somewhere on the spectrum between a sex symbol and Nicolas Cage at his most manic.
What does “free will” mean, anyway? If everywhere we go has its limits and every person we know has a role in our lives, can true freedom ever exist? These are questions I found myself asking while watching Serenity. The switch from neo-noir into philosophical treatise is clunky, and yet I felt a unique frisson in the transition. This is a provocative film, one that dares you to meet it on its level so it can take a dump in your brain, and that provocation is all the more risky since what happens on the surface – sex, violence, and fishing – is goofy trash. Some folks will hate Serenity. At my critics-only screening, there were abundant snickers for the film’s entire second half. That’s only additional proof that Serenity is audacious to its core, and you may never forget it.