Arts movie review

When reality strikes back

‘Serenity’ brings a new perspective to the old genre thriller

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Karen (Anne Hathaway) brings turbulent tides to Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) as his past resurfaces in 'Serenity.'
Graham Bartholomew/Aviron Pictures

Directed by Steven Knight
Screenplay by Steven Knight
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Djimon Hounsou, Jason Clarke, Jeremy Strong
Rated R, Now Playing

Serenity focuses on Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), captain of the fishing boat Serenity. At the start of this tale, his luck is running out. The fish aren’t coming, and he’s not raking in any income. However, he does have a loving woman by his side and a loyal first mate. All in all, it’s a simple life. Then, his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) steps into the picture — blonde, beautiful, and dangerously tempting. She approaches Dill with a very specific request: kill her husband (Jason Clarke) so that she and their son can be freed from his abusive reign.

At first glance, the premise of the film seems like that of any other thriller. The story itself also doesn’t feel particularly extraordinary throughout the first half of the film. Karen is desperate for Dill to release her from her abusive relationship. Their son, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), locks himself in his room, eyes glued to his computer screen.

During the first half of the film, there are multiple nebulous concepts that are constantly addressed by the inhabitants of Plymouth island: luck, morality, right and wrong. The way these ideas are thrown about feels arbitrary. Some inhabitants of the island criticize Dill’s obsession with catching tuna. “You just gotta catch the fish that’s in your head” is a common phrase that comes up. The barkeep of the island and Duke (Djimon Hounsou), Dill’s first mate, constantly badger Dill about his loss of luck and how he should find ways to remedy his bout of unluckiness. At first, it’s uncertain why these things matter. Is the island generally this superstitious? Why does it feel like everyone’s trying to treat the problems of this one ordinary man?

Then Karen shows up with her own problems, and the confusion starts mounting from this point onward. It was hard to continue watching, as it felt like Knight kept adding more and more storylines that seemed to lead nowhere. Karen wants Dill to kill her husband. She wants him to do it to protect their son, but also so she and Dill can rekindle their former love? But where did Dill’s second wife go in all of this? Why does a black cat keep showing up out of nowhere, aside from signaling an omen of bad luck? Why does everyone suddenly seem omniscient about Karen and Dill’s situation, despite all circumstances pointing to the fact that they shouldn’t know anything to begin with? Why is everyone so fixated on the idea of Dill catching tuna?

All of these questions mount on the viewer, building an uncomfortable tension that only frustrates. What makes it worse is the almost comical cinematography. Notably, in the scene when Karen is introduced, the camera pans to her and then frantically revolves around her like a bee. The effect in that one scene was enough to take me aback and question why I was in that theater, watching this film. It was enough to make me skeptical of what I was watching.

Then the climax of the movie comes with answers. Suddenly, everything makes sense, but it definitely takes time to come around to the idea Knight tries to present to his viewers. Fortunately, the film allows viewers to adjust because Dill must always come to terms with the news of his reality. This is when McConaughey particularly shows off his prowess as an excellent actor. From his anger and frustration to his skepticism to his acceptance of the whole situation, the transition of ideas is smooth for both his character and the viewer. The big “ah-ha” moment explodes in our faces but leaves behind a clean slate upon which we can redraw our understanding of the situation.

I do think there is a certain genius in what Knight does. He takes the classic concept of a thriller murder story and puts a modern twist on it. However, the familiarity of the concept did easily lend itself to clichés, which is another thing the film suffers from. From Anne Hathaway’s breathy-voiced fashion beauty to Jason Clarke’s drunken buffoon of an abusive husband, it wasn’t hard to ultimately predict the outcome of the overall story.

The final verdict? Ultimately, the movie was a satisfying watch, despite the rocky first act. Fans of Matthew McConaughey or the thriller genre alike will not be disappointed by Serenity.