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 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.