Serenity (2019)

I have great respect for Steven Knight. He wrote EASTERN PROMISES, ALLIED and THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB, he wrote and directed the under-recognized Jason Statham movie REDEMPTION (a.k.a. HUMMINGBIRD) and the Tom-Hardy-on-the-phone movie LOCKE. Most of his shit is good. So when his new steamy sleazy noir thriller thing SERENITY was universally panned and made fun of for a purportedly insane plot twist I didn’t entirely buy it. I thought maybe people were being unappreciative of its apparent audacity, maybe I would enjoy it more.

But jesus, they weren’t lying. This is the most potent feeling of how did all these people agree that this was a movie worth making I’ve had in a long time. It’s not just that the twist is outlandish – it’s that it’s just not a good premise. Being crazy, being unpredictable, being bizarre, unfortunately does not always equal being cool. I just can’t picture the person who would get to the part where you find out what’s going on and think Ah ha, now we’re talking! This is absolutely an idea that is not dumb and was worth writing down and printing out on paper and getting talented people to convey in a storytelling medium! Your mileage may vary.

I will of course tell you what the twist is. I have to. But it starts as a story about Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey (AMISTAD), Iraq vet turned charter boat captain and fisherman on a quest to catch a mythical beast of a fish he has named “Justice.” He’s kind of a mess, but well-liked on the tiny island of Plymouth. Also he’s hard up for money and taking it out on his faithful first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou, also AMISTAD), who he fires and accuses of being bad luck.

Then one night his femme fatale ex Karen (Anne Hathaway, too young to see AMISTAD without a parent or guardian when it was released in theaters) shows up and offers him two million in cash to take her abusive husband Frank (Jason Clarke, CHAPPAQUIDDICK) out on his little boat Serenity (you see, that’s why it had to be called SERENITY, because that’s the name of a vessel), get him drunk and push him out for the sharks to snack on. He says no, of course, but during the conversation we get a backstory that they were together in high school (Hathaway must be playing ten years older) and that they have a son together who he worries about and implies that she’s endangering, yet he has been in hiding under a fake name and she had to use detective work to track him down. And therefore it’s a good joke that he has a “WORLD’S GREATEST DAD” mug.

This Frank guy does come to the island and he’s a real piece of shit all right. Clarke has fun playing a cocky asshole who dresses like Scarface and likes when his wife calls him “daddy.” He’s rich, so he uses the Dibiase method to pressure Baker into bringing him out on the boat. He also thinks it’s funny to call him “Mr. Dull” instead of “Mr. Dill.” Baker takes Frank fishing, doesn’t kill him, but schedules another trip for the next day. The temptation is throbbing.

Meanwhile there’s been this suit and tie dweeb with a briefcase (Jeremy Strong, LINCOLN) who’s been chasing after Baker the whole movie yelling “Mr. Dill! I need to talk to you!,” always missing him as he leaves shore or drives away. This guy is so cartoonish that after his first failure he takes his glasses off and wipes them and it makes a little squeak squeak noise. He finally gets to talk to Baker at 2:30 am one night, and claims to represent a company that wants to give him a free device called a “Fish Finder.” But also Baker makes him drink rum, and he gets loose enough to accidentally slip that, uh…

Okay, this is the BIG TWIST SPOILER, and there’s no good way to say it. They’re, uh… I’m afraid they’re in a video game. They’re not real. Baker’s son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) is always sitting at his computer typing code that I guess is the video game they live in. And this guy in the tie represents “The Rules” and wants to convince Baker to play the “Catch the Fish” game, not the “Kill the Husband” one. It briefly turns into kind of a TRUMAN SHOW (or, wait a minute… ED TV?) deal where Baker doesn’t really believe it but starts noticing weird things to support the theory that his world is not real.

The first part of the movie, the fake-out part, has some appeal. It reminds me a tiny bit of the knowing sleaziness of WILD THINGS or the sweaty lunacy of McConaughey’s own THE PAPERBOY. Combining that with a story about a monster fish is weird in a good way. If it’s really just a set up for a FROM DUSK TILL DAWN type switcheroo, that’s fine. But the switcheroo has to be unexpected and cool. Not unexpected and jesus christ are you kidding me? You are kidding me, right? I didn’t know Ashton was still doing this stuff. It can’t be something where you’re disappointed to be abandoning the first part. This feels like a fake movie-within-a-movie that got cut out because it was too complicated.

Just the basic mechanics of it are constantly distracting. I don’t care how much of a genius the kid is, programming a video game is a long and test-intensive process, not something you can just improvise on the spot to express yourself because you’re upset. And telling his story from the point of view of a computer program based on the memory of his dad who died in Iraq is… I guess I just don’t see how that’s a story idea that you come up with and then go through with.

The revelation makes everything that came before even sillier in retrospect. This kid is making a fishing game that’s also about his dead father getting paid to screw a sexy cat lady (Diane Lane, STREETS OF FIRE)? We now realize that this child fantasized the sleazy-as-hell scene where his dad talks to his mom about taking her virginity as soon as he considered her old enough (now all the sudden there does seem to be an age gap), and then she seduces him and he humps her for like 30 seconds but pulls out and says “I beat him! I win!,” humiliating her.

(And does the “winning” mean it was a side mission in the game!? I think it does!)

It gets even more baffling. We also learn that Patrick is programming while his abusive stepdad yells at his mom in the other room, and he has his real dad’s hunting knife on the desk and he’s thinking of going out there for some stabbing. He’s expressing his murderous impulses through the game. That’s why the rules guy doesn’t want Baker to go through with murdering Frank, because that means the kid will in real life. But then they both decide (I think) that yes, the child should murder his step dad, so they kill Frank in the game and Patrick kills him in reality. He’s arrested for murder and a completely-lacking-in-verisimilitude news report explains all the details and relevant background information to us. But before the trial Patrick is able to reprogram the game so that he’s a character in it and gets to Baker. And I think that’s supposed to be a happy ending?

I gotta assume this is a fan made poster, but it’s on IMDb and it made me laugh so I’m sharing it with you

I cringed a little when Knight’s “written and directed by” credit slowly faded in like it was convinced it was topping off a mind-expanding masterpiece. It seems like Knight either completely lost touch with how other people will react to his creation, like M. Night Shyamalan, or really didn’t give a shit what anyone thinks, like M. Night Shyamalan. Releasing SERENITY was kind of a kamikaze act on the part of the distributor, Aviron. They couldn’t really advertise what it ends up being about, because that’s basically the last act of the movie, and offers very little other than the surprise realization. But also they had to have known that promoting it the way they did, as a noirish erotic thriller, could only disappoint people. But they said “Fuck it” and pulled the trigger anyway.

The stars apparently don’t recognize this as courageousness. Reportedly Aviron got cold feet and spent much less in advertising than they’d initially promised. For what it’s worth I saw the trailer before at least 3 or 4 movies. One of the times, I think before a packed showing of HEREDITARY, I heard a young woman gripe, “There’s already a movie called SERENITY. A much better movie.” (I laughed at the time, but she was right.)

According to Deadline, McConaughey and Hathaway were “furious” at the distributor after the movie had “the worst opening-weekend numbers of their careers.” At the box office that weekend it ranked below GLASS, THE UPSIDE, AQUAMAN, THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING, SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, GREEN BOOK, and even A DOG’S WAY HOME, which was in its third week. The company was forced to say publicly that “we tested and retested the film – with audiences and critics alike – and sadly, the data demonstrated that the film was not going to be able to perform at our initial expectations.”

Fuck the data, though. Just about anybody could’ve told you this if you just gave them a one or two sentence description of the movie. And Knight is a smart guy, he had to have known. So he must’ve really wanted this to exist anyway.

So hats off I guess? I hope there’s someone out there who really will think this is a great idea and be bowled over by its unlikely existence. Slickly made, with a budget, starring Oscar winners even! I am not that person. I am the one who can only recommend it for “how the fuck did this happen?” curiosity viewing.

But even I will be excited if the iconic video game character Baker Dill shows up in the next WRECK-IT RALPH movie.

P.S. Believe it or not there was a very moving true story about a similar subject – a young woman who uses The Sims to simulate her dead grandma – on the podcast Reply All. Highly recommended.

This entry was posted on Thursday, May 2nd, 2019 at 2:01 pm and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “Serenity (2019)”

  1. ‘And does the “winning” mean it was a side mission in the game!? I think it does!’

    Sounds like someone was going for a cheevo!

  2. I assume the kid is not programming a game from scratch, but actually modding an open world fishing game, and just adding stuff to it that wasn’t in the game and wasn’t supposed to be in the game. Kinda like how every The Sims game ends up being a sex simulator (but mostly they are just murder simulators).

  3. Ho-Lee cats, that is absolutely bonkers. Yeah, “How did anyone involved think this was going to end well?” is about all I got on this. Like, literally anyone. The PAs, the caterers, the grips…anyone privy to the details of the story (that may not be the people I actually mentioned, but you get my point.

  4. CrustaceanLove

    May 2nd, 2019 at 9:11 pm

    Is the big twist remotely predictable? Like, do the secondary characters behave like NPCs in a game, using incongruous and repetitive dialog? Does the plot unfold in a videogamey kind of way (i.e. go get this macguffin for this character so you can move from plot point A to plot point B)? Does McConaughey eat a mushroom and double in size? Does it have any kind of insight into how videogames work at all?

    I do like the idea that someone would mod a fishing game to include a murder, rather than using one of the thousands of existing games that are specifically about murdering people.

  5. But the real question here is: Why does two times Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou always gets these thankless supporting roles?

  6. Crustacean – It doesn’t do any of those things, but it does open with a shot that zooms into the kid’s eye, and then I recognized him when they started talking about him as the son, and making a big deal about him sitting at his computer. Since I was on the lookout for a crazy twist I did start suspecting it before the reveal, but in a “No… that can’t seriously be what it is, can it?” kind of way.

  7. I liked this well enough. Maybe a few months of hearing how bad it is helped. It is pretty weird.

    I did notice something just…off…about the whole thing right from the begining. The environment seemed too perfect, yet off. The fish seemed to big. Like it was all going to be a dream or something. I wasn’t too far off.

    I find it hard to believe it was the worst opening in McCougnahey’s career. He’s in both TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION and TIPTOES. Maybe the worst lately.

    Similar subject matter is handled much, much better in the BLACK MIRROR Choose Your Own Adventure thing BANDERSNATCH.

  8. I rushed out to see this opening weekend after hearing all the vitriolic hullabaloo. I was not disappointed. It’s a truly gonzo piece of WTFism. It’s not good, but it’s certainly something.

    As for the NPC thing, yes the characters do act like NPCs and the environment is pointedly a mishmash of island cliches. The camera periodically does digital whip-pans like readjusting a 3rd person camera angle, too. Finally, act 3 features a new ‘lucky’ first mate, who seems like an upgrade and various “power ups.”

    I took the sleazy sex stuff as an Oedipal thing. I mean, it’s literally a story about a child who loves his mother and wants to murder his father figure. And given what we know about the boy, his sexuality is likely informed wholly by internet porn sights.

    Again, I don’t think this movie is good, but I’m very glad I saw it and it made me think a lot afterwards. And that last bit is my number one sign of quality in a film, usually.

    Personally, I liked the stretch after the reveal where Mr Dill is trying to break the rules but can’t. Wish they had done more with that.

  9. I have no idea how Hollywood works, so apologies if this sounds asinine, but: is there a chance studios make movies like this one precisely *because* their box office failure provides a convenient justification to lower the stars’ salaries in the future?

  10. Nah, this movie happened because McCaughnahey wanted to shoot on an island and wanted to work with Steven Knight. Once he signed on, others followed suit.

    The movie was presold to foreign buyers at AMF or Cannes film market, which covered the film’s budget. The independent company making the movie was basically only on the hook for domestic marketing costs.

    The films quality was secondary to all the business deals. And literally, it got made because the star likes hanging out on beaches.

    It’s that simple.

  11. P.S. I added a postscript under the review that I forgot to include.

  12. Before I started watching this I’d made a mental list of the most ludicrously asinine plot twists I could come up with, and sure enough, this was one of them. (Another from my list, offered free to aspiring screenwriters: You, the viewer, are the killer. I’d genuinely love to see that one get made.)

    But I kind of wish I’d seen this blind. Would I have been able to guess the surprise? It’s clear early on that something weird is going to happen. There’s an apparent psychic link between McConaughey and his kid, which you don’t see in neo-noirs in the normal way of things. And there are some video-gamey POV shots early on that give a hint of what’s afoot. Then again, unmotivated video-gamey photography is turning up in a lot of genre movies these days. “It almost seems like they’re inside a video game, but that would be dumb” — I think an unwary watcher might make it that far. “They are actually going to do that colossally dumb thing” — for someone without advance warning, that’s a much bigger leap.

    Incidentally, to tie things back to the guy who did the other SERENITY — when I saw THE CABIN IN THE WOODS, I decided early on that all the characters were inside a computer simulation, and thought this was confirmed by the bit where they crash into a CGI-ish electronic forcefield. The ending thus left me very confused.

  13. I’ll say this for Serenity. It’s the rare utterly crappy film that’s terrible not because it’s underfunded or lacking for talent in the making of it. Knight got all the rope he needed to hang himself here, and had this been made at any of big studios that probably wouldn’t have been the case.

    The studios and their armies of producers and ‘helpful’ notes are rightly derided for squelching all sorts of potentially great films into mediocre ones. But it’s difficut to see how the hell this gets past the pitch stage (so its like a shoddier version of Body Heat meets a dumber redo of The Thirteenth Floor, you’ll finance that, right?).

    I mean, in theory I’d rather have a bersek whiff like this than some half-arsed effort that only takes up marquee space for a few weeks. But ideally this complete waste of time shouldn’t have been made at all. It’s easier to excuse a failure of execution than vision, Serenity fails at both.

  14. Matthew B: your idea for “you, the viewer, are the killer” made me think of the scene of the guy watching the porn video from the (weirdly prescient) Amazon Women on the Moon, although I think the viewer was just framed for the murder/suicide in that one. I would watch that movie though, or Black Mirror episode at least.

  15. Holy mackerel, this sounds awful. I wasn’t a fan of THE BEACH BUM but that looks like the far superior movie in terms of Matthew McConaughey weird star vanity projects from this year.

  16. The big trouble with the twist isn’t just that it’s a video game but that it makes no sense at all, is McConaughey’s video game character supposed to be sentient? How?

    Someone being trapped in a VR simulation and not realizing it is not too bad of an idea, but that’s not what this is, a better take is an actual video game, a 1996 point and click adventure game called HARVESTER that’s about a guy that wakes up and finds himself in a demented, creepy 1950s era town where everyone is insane, only to learn that he’s trapped in a VR simulation.

    It’s clearly another case of someone writing about video games but knowing nothing about them, I’m surprised his son isn’t playing the game on a “GAMESTATION 4.0” that makes generic bloops and bleeps while he randomly mashes on the controller’s buttons.

  17. Also, thinking really hard about it I can alllllllllmost see what Knight was going for, making a very cliche thriller that turns out to be cliche because…. it’s a video game!

    On paper that must have sounded clever, but of course when turned into an actual movie it’s stupid as hell.

  18. Oh whoa Tawdry, i wasn’t expecting an actual answer to that question, so thank you for that peek into the sausage factory. There is an appealing and perhaps terrifying elegance to the idea that an awful, ridiculous movie would exist only because its star enjoys beaches.

  19. I often wonder if there are real life The Producers situations with movies. The “we wanna work somewhere exotic” thing happens a lot with Sandler’s crew although those movies still perform. John Stockwell seems to only direct movies in such settings.

  20. I’m glad they’re finally getting around to filming some of Donald Kaufman’s unproduced screenplays. I hear the horse vs. technology set-piece is a real stunner.

  21. There’s an Ashley Judd thriller that almost is The Three.

  22. While I’m sure the McConaughey/beach thing is true, I also sort of think that part of the cast attraction (because face it, Anne Hathaway isn’t going to sign on because McConaughey likes to hang out on the beach) was due to the fact that on paper, this probably looked like Knight’s take on eXistenZ. His Cronenberg association supports this.

    The problem being, Knight isn’t exactly Cronenberg when it comes to direction.

  23. I can see the actors and even studio suits signing up for that script, thinking: “Oh man, everybody will talk about that twist, this is gonna be a this generation’s SIXTH SENSE!” Turned out everybody talked about the twist for the wrong reasons and it was more this generation’s LADY IN THE WATER.

  24. You’re right, Jojo, Hathaway didn’t sign on because McConaughey likes beaches. She signed on for a short shoot where she was paid her quote with an Oscar winning costar and an Oscar nominated director who was coming off a hot buzz film… she also signed on based on an early script draft and presumed the writer/director could pull it together, especially if McConaughey saw something in it.

  25. *SPOILERS* – 1) I think if this was simply called “Black Mirror: Serenity”, people wouldn’t give it as much of a hard time. 2) I also think if it had the words “Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos” people would probably like its weird quirks and strange humor better as well (this has some truly hilarious Lanthimos-esque gags in it that feels completely intentional). 3) I appreciate the switcheroo and the marketing team’s way of keeping it quiet (by unfortunately making it look like a Lifetime Movie, which it kinda had to.) I mean, we all wish we saw From Dusk Till Dawn without knowing the vampire twist, and here we finally get an experience like that and everyone hates it.

    All that being said, this movie’s not very good. It’s muddled as hell and the twist seems to be pulled from a script sitting on the shelf since the early 2000’s. It doesn’t help that McCounoughey spends 20 minutes running around grilling people about life on the island when the audience is already like “Can you hurry up and accept the twist already so we can move on?” I mean, to be honest, if I told you what this movie was really about, and then told you what “mother!” was really about, most people would say both sound equally stupid. But the reason “mother!” is a masterpiece and this one is kind of a failure is in the performances, filmatism, tension, etc… Now I’m not saying Darren Aronofosky could take this script and this twist and make something good out of it, but it couldn’t hurt. I just think Steven Knight smoked a little too much pot one night and thought “what if you had a movie called Double Identity that was a cross between Double Indemnity and Identity?” And then randomly changed the title to Serenity even though the other Serenity isn’t that old and he really could have named the boat anything he wanted to really.

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