Diamonds in the Rough (DitR, /dɪ’tər/) takes some of the most derided, divisive, controversial, financially catastrophic, and meme-worthy movies and tries to find the silver lining. Bad movies don’t always start as bad ideas, and flops aren’t always flop-worthy. DitR seeks to find the good within the bad, because the world could use some positivity. And when all else fails, making fun of bad movies is oh-so satisfying.
In this installment, we look at the 2019 Steven Knight drama, Serenity. [Caution: Spoilers Ahead]
- Rotten Tomatoes: 20% (188 reviews) | 29% (1,461 user ratings)
- Metacritic: 37 (38 critics) | 4.5/10 (90 user ratings)
- IMDb: 5.3/10 (31,656 ratings)
- Letterboxd: 2.0/5 (18,729 ratings)
To put it plainly, the Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway-starring crime mystery film Serenity is a wild one. It does not quite reach the surreal, fever dream peaks that some of the best good-bad movies do, but the names attached to this and the nature of its release put it in an interesting category of bad movie. It is a category that could be called “Glorious Misfires.” But before trying to unpack both what I think this movie is trying to do and what it is effectively providing in its execution, I should give credit where it is due. That is the purpose of this series, after all.
I think Steven Knight is a capable director and an even more capable screenwriter. I find his 2013 film, Locke, particularly striking. The film takes what reads on paper as visually flat—the entire film takes place inside of a car—and makes it cinematic and dynamic. The script still carries a lot of the weight, but Knight is also smart enough to get out of Tom Hardy’s way, letting the actor control the little space available to work with (Hardy is, it should be mentioned, the only actor seen on-screen throughout the entire film). Knight also wrote David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and Stephen Frears Dirty Pretty Things, which are both pretty great films.
With Serenity, Knight is not phoning it in. If anything, this reads like a die-hard passion project, the type of movie most directors aren’t ever allowed to make. It is wildly plotted, hinging on a reveal to make or break its mystery plot (spoiler alert: it breaks the plot).
And Knight is directing the hell out of this thing. The first scene, which takes place on fisherman Baker Dill’s (McConaughey) boat just off the coast of idyllic Plymouth Island, starts with big sweeping shots of ocean and settles on crisply-edited closeups of fishing lines tightening and Dill struggling. Armed with a thunderous score, the camera begins underwater, showing a glimpse of the (mostly symbolic) figure of “Justice,” the big fish that Dill is obsessed with, as if catching the beast will grant him some definitive understanding about life itself. The camera then surfaces and cranes in rapidly on the boat, quickly establishing the space and energy that this film exists in. This first scene also introduces the unhinged lengths of McConaughey’s performance as Dill, showing that maybe Knight has made it a habit to get out of the way of his actors.
This opening scene is one example of what is ultimately a fairly good looking movie. But that does not absolve the film of its insane plot machinations and leaps in logic.
The film’s basic plot involves Karen Zariakas (Hathaway), a mysterious figure from Dill’s past, coming to Plymouth Island with a dangerous proposition. Dill, who has clearly come to the island to escape his past (even he can’t quite remember how long it has been since his arrival), does not take kindly to the woman’s offer. However, about halfway through the film it becomes clear that the neo-noir murder plot involving Karen, Dill, and Karen’s husband Frank (Jason Clarke) exists within a video game. A teenage boy is programming characters from his life into a video game in order to find some sort of mental and emotional relief from his real-world abusive household.
Through the lens of neo-noir, Hathaway plays a fairly compelling femme fatale. Of course, within the diegetic logic and the video game logic of the film her character makes very little sense. Much has been said about the sexual material in the film, that this child has essentially programmed a sex minigame into his fishing video game which involves his mother, his deceased father, and their intense emotional baggage. It is a scene which is hard to defend. You could call it Freudian, I guess…
Still, from a generic standpoint Hathaway’s character is intriguing. Were it not for the twist, the film would be little more than an oddball noir. It is a pretty standard kill-the-husband plot made popular by films like The Postman Always Rings Twice. But Serenity is also a film about chasing that which seems impossible to catch. Dill wants his fish (itself a metaphor for the son wanting the father). Reid “The Rules” Miller wants to, ironically, break the rules and track down Dill. Karen Zariakas wants freedom from her oppressive husband. At the very least there are felt emotional stakes with the latter. Hathaway’s character is the only one with any true level of emotional depth. Unfortunately, her character is comprised of a few lines of code. And her continually calling her husband “daddy” is…just off-putting
And Frank Zariakas is a villain forged out of the fires of Hell itself. His cruelty knows no bounds. He intimates, as he hedonistically pours champagne from the bottle straight down his gullet, that he is interested in seeking out underage sex workers later that night. He examines his wife’s naked body, beating her if she has so much as a scratch that hasn’t come from his hand. He is as cartoonish and heinous as evil can be.
Of course, this makes sense within the flawed logic of the film. Why would this child paint this character with any finer a brush? His step father is the biggest source of pain in his life, and programming this video game is his only outlet. Put those two things together, and you have a video game villain so crazily evil that he doesn’t come across as realistic by any stretch of the imagination. Even the most nihilistic of noir baddies have more realism to their characterization than this.
There are other moments where the video game twist feeds into the diegetic world of Plymouth Island in logical and intriguing ways. Most notably, the seeming omniscience of the island’s inhabitants is a fun running gag. The “around here everybody knows everything” idea works both pre-twist and post-twist. It is realistic that the denizens of a small fishing town would all talk, gossiping about every noteworthy occurrence. It also makes sense that coded NPCs would know just as much information as they are programmed to know to function properly within the game. This is the type of clever writing that makes one wonder what Serenity could have been had it not been for all of the insane logical obstacles that Knight wrote himself into a corner with.
The feedback loop of a child programming into his video game a character who gives the video game’s lead character self-awareness about being in a video game is a paradox that I will not even begin to try to unpack. Doing so would also pose the question of whether or not “The Rules” becoming self-aware himself is a result of the programmer programming that self-awareness into the programmed rules of the game. And if so, how is it that “The Rules” can no longer control the rules of the game, which for some reason have changed so that the object of the game is to kill a man instead of to catch a fish. Has the child programming the game found a way to give the character in his game the power of choice? Can free will exist within code? Can you program a computer program to contain memories, memories which assets within the program choose to have and explore? Do androids dream of electric sheep and yadda yadda yadda…
None of this is answered within the film, and, like I said, I am not here to unpack it. Because, frankly, the film is not nuanced enough to approach the questions in any substantial way, let alone provide answers. Is Serenity smarter than it lets on? Not particularly. But it is also not as low intelligence as your run-of-the-mill good-bad movie.
It is merely insanely misguided. Knight wants to engage with a generic experiment—mix film noir with science fiction fantasy. It does not seem like he wants to engage with the implications of the product of that experimentation. It feels like he put the cart before the horse in terms of storytelling—tell the story of a revenge plot and a disgruntled child in a household of abuse, then fill in the logical reasoning, which is necessary for the video game twist to work, later.
As a result, it all reads clunky. Lost cats, a fish called Justice, a video game used as a metaphor for a child murdering his step father, and a ham-fisted V.O. news report that sums it all up in the end. It’s just a lot of figurative balls to juggle in a film which is ultimately doing very little narrative work.
I’ve kept my description of the film relatively brief, because my answer to the question “is Serenity a good-bad movie?” is a resounding yes. As with any good-bad movie worth its salt, the film has a plot which ought to be experienced for oneself. I’ve laid out the basic plot and hinted at its misguided, illogical nature, but there is still more to discover. Again, this is not the type of good-bad film whose lack of logic and coherence rises to inhuman levels, such as with your Breens or your Wiseaus. This is a misfire on a bigger budget, with big-name actors playing roles that they agreed to play after reading a script. In some ways, this makes the experience all the more enjoyable. To invoke a podcast, it is a real case of “how did this get made?”
As of this writing, Serenity is available on Amazon Prime. If you are a fan of all things bad movies, then this should be added to your list.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)