Is it even possible to defend Serenity – this year’s most harshly pilloried film to date – without blowing its gargantuan twist right out of the water? Probably not, but let’s have an eager crack at it anyway. The pundits detest Stephen Knight’s latest creation but it’s actually pretty exceptional. Yes, it’s a somewhat sour-tasting bouillabaisse of ill-assorted ingredients. Yes, it’s disgustingly saccharine. And yes, it’s weirder than a smitten Tom Cruise. One to miss, though? Absolutely not.
Set on the peculiarly sleepy island of Plymouth, this neo-noirish mystery-thriller follows surly fishing boat skipper Baker (Matthew McConaughey). Bent on catching Justice – a giant tuna that has evaded him for years – Baker leads a simple life. When he’s not chasing the ‘tuna in his head’ with loyal pal Duke (Djimon Hounsou), he’s knocking back too much booze and sleeping with Constance (Diane Lane). Things get complicated when Baker’s alluring ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) turns up on the island with a favour to ask. Married to loathsome Frank (Jason Clark), an abusive millionaire, Karen is at the end of a frayed rope. Desperate to protect herself and Patrick, Baker’s son, she offers him a load of cash to croak her ‘daddy’ during a surprise fishing trip. While Baker is reluctant, a paternal itch and a spiritual connection with Patrick – both a minor and conceptually major player in this ‘game’ – leave the idea lingering.
By the time Karen’s proposal inevitably hooks Baker and reels him in, Serenity feels simultaneously familiar and alien. We’ve seen these quintessential characters before. The swaggering bully. The gruff loner. The foxy blonde. They’re all over the multiple genres this story dips its toes in. That’s what appears to be at the core of disdain for Serenity; this hotchpotch of styles and clichés, plus the almighty mess they make as they begin to get in each other’s way. It all sits about as right as a bellyful of rotting Toro. Questions abound.
Why is a frigatebird that usually only flies over open waters now soaring above land? How come a battered wife isn’t bruised? What’s with the hostile blank stares of the Islanders? Who is the little bespectacled chap, in what must be a stifling suit, doggedly trying to find Baker and rambling about the “rules?” Are these mysterious rules commandments, set by some higher power? Or will Baker find his maker in a more far-fetched source?
The reviews put the ambiguity down to crude screenwriting and direction, but they’re overlooking Knight’s intentions, so transparent they’re invisible to most. It takes a keen eye to see that, rather than ineptly throwing together a bunch of styles, this shrewd filmmaker has purposely crafted a contentious fusion that flips the finger at Hollywood conventions. It acts as a superlative allegory of Serenity’s hidden depths, which straddle the realms of fantasy, delusion, and speculation. Life of Pi meets The Truman Show here.
At some point, our protagonist claims to have a metaphor hangover and it’s understandable if Serenity has the same effect on you. Its very concept hinges on metaphor – something the appearance of Rene Magritte’s ‘The Son of Man’ alludes to. The renowned painting – of a man wearing a bowler hat, his face concealed by an apple – depicts the idea that the visible conceals something, but because people desire to see the latter, a conflict between both occurs. This expectation-subverting film achieves a similar struggle between what the audience perceives and the symbolism that’s hidden, resolved only as events climax.
Well, there you go. It turns out a spoiler-free defence of this highly ambitious, experimental film, although challenging, is possible after all. Please watch it, but bear in mind the aspects screaming to be hated serve a brilliant purpose.