serenity review

A certain level of worship has grown around the movie “twist.” Career-ending contracts have been signed, backs bent, people probably (not really) thrown in movie jail for committing the worst sin a film lover can make: spoiling the twist. Twists have become such an essential part of our pop culture language that they’re more expected than not, and usually come in the form of a shocking death or a rote reveal. But there’s something to be said for the twist so monumental, so disruptive that it retroactively transforms the entire movie.

One such twist happens two-thirds of the way through Serenity, Steven Knight’s neo-noir thriller starring Matthew McConaughey as a rugged fishing boat captain whose dark, tortured past comes back to haunt him in the form of his sultry ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway). The sexy narrative that follows is pretty standard noir melodrama stuff: Karen begs McConaughey’s absurdly named Baker Dill to kill her abusive husband (Jason Clarke), whose drunken rages not only endanger her, but her and Baker’s young son. Though he at first refuses, bent on his obsession with catching a giant tuna that he hilariously nicknames “Justice,” Baker relents after he begins to experience strange visions that convince him that he is telepathically linked to his son.

Then that aforementioned twist rolls in. This is a twist that completely overtakes the movie, sending it careening so far off the rails that it crashes through to an entirely new dimension that you hadn’t realized existed until now. It’s a twist that transforms Serenity from a seedy, B-movie noir into a high-concept juggernaut that defies categorization, yet feels overwhelmingly familiar — like a crazy quilt of high-concept movies that would partially spoil the ending if I even mention their titles. All right, I’ll give you a hint (and skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid all possible spoilers): imagine if The Matrix and The Adjustment Bureau had a murder baby.

But does the twist work? Yes and no. Serenity is a pastiche of many lofty ideas that crystallize into something incoherent but so audacious that you can’t help but admire it. It leaps so high over the film’s CGI shark that it skyrockets into the stratosphere where it freezes and explodes in a supernova, raining little meteorites over us awestruck Earthlings. Serenity is operating on a different level than all of us.

Serenity can be divided into two halves: before and after the twist. Both halves of Serenity are so wildly dissimilar that they could be completely different movies — usually a red flag for a film that hinges on a twist. But the reveal does track, in a way: the first half of the film seems to take place in a reality all to its own. This is a movie where everyone talks like they’re in a ’40s pulp novel and lives on a tropical fishing island named after a New England town that could be located anywhere between the Caribbean to the South Pacific. Hints of the supernatural are peppered throughout the film, like an ominous bird that follows Baker’s movements and Jeremy Strong’s cartoonishly inept businessman who urgently chases after Baker to relay some mysterious important news.

The rest of the cast deserves props for their dedication to the film’s sheer heights of ridiculousness: McConaughey for playing straight his tormented, obsessive fisher with a penchant for screaming in existential angst. Hathaway for purring every one of her lines. Clarke for embodying the most reprehensible abusive drunkard. Diane Lane for swanning about in silk kimonos while constantly talking about cats. Djimon Hounsou for being the hardest-working character actor in thankless roles.

But despite the game cast and the deranged twist, there’s something about Serenity that doesn’t quite cohere. The pivot is ambitious, to be sure, but it’s also neck-breaking in its suddenness. Once that twist takes place, the film races at breakneck speed toward an ending that doesn’t quite tie up all the threads that Knight introduces, nor the film’s vague gestures toward a greater philosophical meaning. And though Knight —whose specialty appears to be sordid action thrillers (Hummingbird with Jason Statham) and experimental character dramas (Locke with Tom Hardy) — successfully marries the two genres of his previous feature films with a flashy visual style that favors whip pans and bird’s eye views, he doesn’t totally pull off the film’s central conceit.

But Serenity is splashy, it’s weird, it’s wild, and it knows it. And it’s a highly ambitious movie that offers something that fewer and fewer movies do these days: a genuine surprise.

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10

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