If you know anything at all about the spirituality that guides Matthew McConaughey and his wildly unpredictable, occasionally brilliant and occasionally maddening cinematic career, then you understand why McConaughey would sign on to a film that seemed almost pre-destined to be misunderstood by a Hollywood machinery that has never quite known how to appropriately represent the occasional unique voice that rises from the masses and lands in theaters.
Serenity is just plain too different to be a Hollywood motion picture, not even for an up-and-coming studio like Aviron Pictures. Written and directed by Steven Knight, a 2004 Academy Award nominee for Original Screenplay for Dirty Little Things and who also gave us the underrated Locke, Serenity is a unique beast of a film, a poorly marketed film put out to the masses as a sexy thriller of sorts but a film that doesn't actually do what sexy thrillers are supposed to do and instead adds layer upon nonsensical layer in creating a thought-provoking mindfuck of a film that you need to watch more than once but, if we're being honest, is the kind of film you're probably only going to watch once.
McConaughey is Baker Dill, a Plymouth Island fishing boat captain with an Ahab-like obsession with a mystical, mythical tuna named Justice that keeps escaping from his reel. It's a parallel that you'll understand by film's end, though you'll find yourself confused more than a time or two along the way. Plymouth Island is the kind of tiny island you escape to when life has given you something to escape from, a truth for for Dill, a decorated war vet who seems to take a certain degree of comfort in being in this tiny little village where everyone knows your business and they're not hesitant to get in it. Dill is haunted, by his past and by flashbacks or memories or visions of a son he's never really known. His only real connections are Diane Lane's Constance, appropriately named because she seems to be one of the few constants in Dill's life, and Djimon Hounsou's Duke, a faith-inspired first-mate for Bill and more than a little bit of a protector.
He's gonna' need that protector when Anne Hathaway's Karen comes calling. Karen is Dill's ex-wife, a sultry sort of gal who likely left Dill for a better life and instead ended up with one mean son of a bitch in the person of Jason Clarke's ornery, abusive Frank, whose first appearance on the island lets us know he's up to no good and somebody needs to take care of that no good.
The always financially drained Dill may very well be that someone thanks to a $10 million deal from Karen if he'll only take care of the guy on a pre-planned fishing excursion that offers the perfect opportunity.
There's more that happens, of course. There's lots more. Knight's script toys with our expectations, rights the course, then toys with them a little bit more before getting on track back into that whole spirituality thing mentioned in the beginning that has to have been at least part of what made McConaughey sign on to a project that seemed destined from the beginning to fail but sure had to be an awful lot of fun to create.
I'm writing this review shortly after the opening weekend box-office numbers have revealed Serenity to be one of McConaughey's lowest opening films to date, a disappointment even with its relatively modest expectations for a mid-January action thriller that's difficult to market and difficult to truly understand from a trailer that doesn't begin to explain the film. Ignore the haters, Serenity is a rewarding film for those patient enough to immerse themselves in it, a sexy and stylish and thought-provoking motion picture with sensuality and spirituality and a willingness to flaunt them both.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic