After exploring the streets of London and staging a chamber play on the motorway, writer/director Steven Knight drops the anchor on his latest feature Serenity. It’s been an odd journey of sorts leading up to the release of Knight’s third directorial effort. Marketing has come in crumbs via a few TV spots and announcements on its change of distribution here in the UK (now debuting in cinemas and on Sky Cinema VOD a few days later). With this in mind, intrigue was certainly on my mind.
On the surface, Serenity wants to be a noir thriller about its femme fatale (Anne Hathaway) enlisting Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) to murder her abusive husband (Jason Clarke) on a staged fishing expedition. Knight’s script wants us to take this seriously, but the unhinged tone is a far cry from the reality that Knight would like us to indulge in. Jason Clarke is seemingly taking pointers from the cocaine-fuelled cartels of Scarface, while McConaughey is trying to squeeze blood from a stone. Diane Lane and Dijimon Hounsou also round out the world around them.
World is the key word there. Normally I don’t like to divulge spoilers, but in the case of Serenity, it’s fairly crucial to the narrative and how it progresses once the true nature of the plot is on show. With this in mind, this will be my SPOILER WARNING before we go any further.
From the get-go, it’s apparent that there is something distinctly off with how characters interact and go about their endeavours within the contained island environment. Conversations and motives are routine, carried out on a rinse-repeat basis. Baker is on a revolving cycle of hosting tourist fishing trips, working as a gigolo at the behest of Diane Lane and using those funds to continue. The fishing trips themselves are nothing but a front for Baker to catch “him”, in reference to an aquatic foe that he obsesses over.
Once Hathaway arrives, it’s clear her aesthetic and demeanour are uneven amongst the dreary and sweat filled bars of Plymouth (no, not the coast of England). Visions have been plaguing Baker, of a boy enduring a domestic between his parents, in the shelter of his bedroom. The boy appears to be coding and manipulating software with ease, as a form of escapism. The true narrative is revealed when a Fishing Tackle salesmen is actually an NPC that explains this world is all part of a video game that Baker’s son, Patrick, has been developing in the real world as a coping mechanism to lay out a plan that would see the demise of his step-dad, following Baker’s real-life death in military combat.
At this point, Serenity could have gone a few ways. Even if it’s prior content was of an uninspired feel, at least this could be a gateway to some Truman Show style observations on perception. Unfortunately, any coherent sense that was present before is released from Knight’s direction.
The execution feels stuck in a mindset where early 00s cyber thrillers were visions of scrawny teenagers exclaiming “I’m IN” as they destroyed their keyboards in a blaze of speedy typing. In some ways, there is a notion that Serenity could be perceived as a “so bad it’s good” experience but the final result fails to engage on that playing field.
There was a substantial opportunity for Knight to use the thriller platform as a dark canvas for Baker’s new found look at the authenticity of his existence. The morality of murder in a game world and whether that mindset is one and the same with real life seems like a key point in regards to the conclusion of Serenity.
To a very small extent, Knight and McConaughey do briefly explore the structuralism of the video game format even if the format itself isn’t the main focus but more of a springboard for the emotional concepts at play. Baker visits his local tackle shop once more, this time ripping and dissecting his conversation with the shopkeeper. Her replies, no matter what dialogue tree Baker takes, are focused purely on the mission of catching that fish. Pair this with the GTA style radio station that also keeps Baker in check, there are glimmers of Knight having something to offer as an observation.
It’s a shame can’t hold the weight of the reveal. Each action going forward and specific ones before that (he is programming his dad to seduce his mum for the purposes of adhering to the thriller genre aspect?) are harder to rationalise in the grand scheme of it all.
I was thinking about this movie and Knight’s previous directorial projects for a while after and I admittedly do admire Knight’s tenacity and gusto to go from minimal character dramas to something like this that desperately wants to keep its cards shuffling. Unlike the superbly minimal Locke or underrated turn from Jason Statham in Hummingbird, Serenity misses the mark with an ambitious turn from Knight no less.
Directed by: Steven Knight
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou