It happens about once a year. A film is released, often featuring major stars and a shockingly large budget, that is so mind-numbingly bad that the critical response is akin to a ritual killing: its flaws must be dissected, its creative choices mocked and its actors shamed for their poor judgment. Recent entries in this contemptible canon include The Snowman, The Book of Henry and, wrongly, Serenity, the unhinged 2019 Matthew McConaughey mystery about a guy named Dill, a fish named Justice and a tropical island made up of ones and zeroes.
Serenity arrived with an impressive pedigree. It was written and directed by Steven Knight, who created TV’s Peaky Blinders, and wrote and directed 2013’s Locke, a tense little drama starring Tom Hardy and set entirely in a car that has achieved a minor following. Knight clearly has talent to spare, and with Oscar winners McConaughey and Anne Hathaway on board, expectations for Serenity were high. The first warning sign came when the film, slated for an awards-season release date, was quietly pushed to January, often a sign that the studio thinks it has a bomb on its hands.
And yes, it’s easy to see why there would be skepticism about Serenity’s ability to connect with the public. This is a film operating on a wavelength all its own. Set on the fictitious island of Plymouth, it starts off as a lean film noir centering on Baker Dill, a frequently shirtless, profoundly tanned fishing boat captain who is almost religiously obsessed with a single quest: catching a massive tuna that seems to be always hanging around his boat. No, it’s not a documentary about what the real McConaughey does on vacation, but it might as well be. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Dill gets diverted when his ex-wife (Hathaway) walks into his life with a proposition to kill her new husband (Jason Clarke), a high-income, low-class brute who abuses her and terrifies the child she had with Dill. It’s a fair deal: she gets her freedom, and Dill gets $10m, which will mean he can quit taking drunken tourists out sport-fishing and spend all his time searching for his white whale, er, tuna.
The Florida noir is a hallowed genre with entries like Key Largo, Night Moves, Body Heat and Wild Things. It’s built on simple pleasures: aqua blue seas, white sand, half-clothed movie stars and the schadenfreude of watching one man’s paradise turn into a hell on earth. Serenity plays these notes with verve so what, you might ask, is up with its terrible reputation? Well, it has something to do with the prim, proper man in a suit (Jeremy Strong) following Dill around, desperate to talk to him about “the rules”. Or the fact that Dill seems to have a telepathic connection with his son, who we often see parked in front of a computer screen, writing code. Or the fact that Diane Lane shows up in just two scenes as a woman Dill sleeps with for cash, and why on earth would a character who looks like Diane Lane ever need to pay for sex?
Slowly, a hidden truth emerges. It’s not quite right to call it a spoiler, since knowing about the plot in advance is by far the best enticement to see the film. Here it is: everything we’re seeing is a computer game created by Dill’s son. Plymouth Island doesn’t exist. Neither does Baker Dill, at least not in that world. The kid has created a game, in which his real father kills his new stepfather, as a coping mechanism, and in the film’s admirably off-the-rails second half, Dill starts to uncover the truth of his surroundings. He finds a map (in his own home, mind you) that shows Plymouth Island surrounded by miles of nothing. He peppers the locals with questions only to discover they have no knowledge of the world outside their limited purpose. It’s The Truman Show for simulation theory geeks.
But it’s also the kind of wild swing for the fences that critics and moviegoers alike spend so much time complaining aren’t made any more. For all its flaws, Serenity represents a full commitment to a director’s gonzo vision that, in a sea of franchises designed to fulfill audience expectations and do little else, is as refreshing as a dip in the Gulf of Mexico on a hot summer day. Overstuffed with idiosyncrasies, Serenity feels like a mainline into the head of its writer-director, chronicling his obsessions and perversions with little concern for looking foolish. After all, this is a film in which a pre-teen boy crafts a virtual world in which his father is a part-time gigolo and his parents have angry sex in the cabin of a fishing boat. Kudos to Knight for thinking that was something audiences wanted to think about.
And in McConaughey, Knight found the perfect actor to embody his cosmic vision. When it comes to pontificating on the nature of the universe, neither one seems to have an off switch. It’s easy to imagine the two of them on-set, engulfed in a haze of pot smoke, egging each other on to make the story more outlandish with every scene. But McConaughey is the one spouting this insane dialogue – “You know how in Plymouth we like to say everybody knows everything? Wouldn’t it be funny if the truth was nobody knows anything?” – and there’s no other actor in this dimension who could make such inanity sound believable. Watching Serenity is a bit like listening to McConaughey give a Ted Talk on the singularity, and whether it leaves you cackling with laughter, bored out of your skull, or simply in slack-jawed awe at its confidence that anyone will care, it’s a trip you won’t soon forget.