★ / ★★★★
Points for “Serenity,” written and directed by Steven Knight, for trying to rise above a standard thriller involving a boat, an abused wife, and a murder plot. There is a massive but elusive fish, a mysterious businessman who sticks out like a sore thumb, a combat veteran who is estranged from his son, a lone bar on an island where everyone appears to get information, and acknowledgements of rules being changed suddenly. There are psychic connections and a bird that follows the boat around. At one point, even our protagonist declares that there are strange goings-on. It is all very aware and ambitious, but these disparate elements never come together in a way that makes us feel as though it is worth the time and effort we invest in attempting to put the pieces together.
The problem lies in the screenplay. It relies on one big twist that is revealed about halfway through and smaller twists dispersed throughout the remainder of the story. After the game-changing revelation, it forges on telling the story it initially presented, but this is an incorrect decision, you see, because the more interesting angle is the one not being explored. Once we know what is really going on, the initial story, and whatever happens in it, feels so inconsequential. If I sound like I am being vague on purpose, that is because I am. Pulling out the rug from under us is quite neat, and to spoil it would reduce the film into pointlessness.
This leads us to the second major problem. Brilliant twists do not make a movie, not even in superior films like “The Sixth Sense,” “The Crying Game,” “The Usual Suspects,” “Se7en,” and even “Sleepaway Camp.” In these aforementioned movies, take away the respective reveals and the picture is still able to stand strong on its own. In Knight’s work, however, the pieces are not only amorphous and nonsensical, there is no convincing emotional arc. The main character, Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), a father who chases a fish so obsessively because he has not seen his son in years, undergoes numerous suffering—psychological, financial, physical—but we are not compelled to learn more about him, his lifestyle, and those around him.
The film is beautifully photographed, especially shots of the fishing boat leaving the harbor and when the camera looks into the deep water before fish is pulled out of it. There is also some excitement when there is silence and suddenly the clicking of the fishing reel builds up to a heart-racing staccato. This should have been a segue for the viewer to understand Baker Dill’s all-consuming quest of reeling in Justice, a large tuna. But these postcard-worthy shots are disconnected from the neo-noir thriller with moments of paranoia. It made me wish that I was at the beach instead of sitting inside the movie theater hoping for all the ideas to come together.
The performances are fine, nothing special. I must note, however, that those hoping to see McConaughey in various states of nakedness are likely to have a ball. For instance, we watch him jump off a cliff and swim in the ocean with nothing on. Perhaps, to some, that is a selling point. For me, though, Anne Hathaway who portrays an abused wife is the most watchable because she, as usual, milks every moment. As I walked out of the theater, it struck me that I don’t remember her character’s words, but I do remember how Karen holds her eyes when she is desperate, the way she moves her body when she is humiliated, the manner in which her lips quivers just so when freedom is at arm’s reach. Like the audience, the actors deserve stronger material.