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Serenity (2019)

Serenity (2019) comes to us from writer/director Steven Knight, who previously wrote and directed a marvelous Tom Hardy showcase called Locke. After that one-man film turned out better than it had any right to be, I was genuinely excited to see Knight step behind the camera again. Especially when he had a cast loaded with such talents as Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, and Diane Lane.

Little wonder the movie was scheduled for a September/October release window, making it a prime contender for the 2018 awards season. And then this happened.

“We had the best intentions for Serenity. We were excited for the opportunity to release this uniquely original movie and work with such a stellar cast and talented filmmakers. As much as we love this film and still hope it finds its audience, 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, so we adjusted our budget and marketing tactics accordingly. […] To have spent more would have been irresponsible to our capital partners and wouldn’t have made prudent business sense for an independent distributor.” –Statement from Aviron Pictures, the film’s distributor

In other words, the studio knew from test screenings that the movie was hot garbage. So they cut all promotion and shunted it to January 25th of 2019 — probably the deepest and darkest pit of the January cinematic dumping grounds. It was a pathetic attempt at saving face, especially after Knight, McConaughey, and Hathaway all made it publicly clear that they were not happy with their movie getting shafted.

It certainly didn’t help that Aviron was still licking its wounds after A Private War garnered marvelous critical reviews and even a few awards nominations, yet grossed a pathetic end total of $3.8 million worldwide. Later on, Aviron released After in April of 2019 — even against such slim competition as Hellboy (2019), Little, and Missing Link (in the pre-Avengers wasteland, admittedly), the movie was panned by critics, pretty much entirely dropped from theaters after only two weekends, and it scored a paltry $12 million take ($69.5 million worldwide, to be fair) against a $14 million reported budget.

I guess we’ll see how The Informer fares this coming August, and whether Aviron will still be in business by this time next year. Speaking of which, Serenity (2019) was also co-financed by Open Road Films, which went bankrupt in September of 2018. Right around the time when Serenity was first set for release. No way that’s a coincidence.

The point being that Serenity had no shortage of bad press even before it had been released. There was every reason to believe that it would be a garbage fire, and the numbers didn’t disappoint. The film was excoriated by critics and took in $11.4 million worldwide against a reported $25 million budget.

But the reviews themselves were interesting.

The more I heard about this movie, the more I started to hear about how it was totally batshit. There were no spoilers or specifics, of course, but there was something about this movie that made it uniquely bad in a bold and daring sort of way. Something that set it apart in a way that had to be seen to be believed.

So finally, I waited until the movie hit DVD and rented it from my favorite rental store (All hail Movie Madness, long live physical media!). And I’m genuinely glad I didn’t pay the full ticket price or I might have done something to get me arrested.

McConaughey stars as Baker Dill, a war vet who runs the eponymous fishing boat alongside Djimon Hounsou’s character, name of Duke. Business is lousy, in large part because Baker keeps losing tourist money and more lucrative commercial catches to pursue an enormous tuna that’s escaped him multiple times in the past. In fact, Baker is so obsessed with catching this mammoth fish that he’s affectionately nicknamed it “Justice”.

I know. I know. It gets worse. As bad as you think it could possibly get with such on-the-nose symbolism, it gets worse. Stay with me.

Anyway, Baker is so hard-up for cash that he gets himself a sugar mama, played by Diane Lane. Also, her cat is always running away and Baker’s always bringing the cat back… there’s a whole thing about it and it’s another thread of extraneous bullshit on top of the pile.

The point is, Baker is at his most desperate for money. Enter Karen Zariakas, Baker’s ostentatiously wealthy old flame, played by Anne Hathaway. Unable to put up with Baker’s post-war PTSD, she left him some time ago for a wealthy drunken abusive asshole (Frank, played to the cheap seats by Jason Clarke) and she can’t go through with a divorce. So now Karen is offering $10 million in cash for Baker to take Frank out for a fishing trip and send him overboard, leaving the sharks to clean up the evidence and making the whole murder look like an accident.

To recap: We’ve got the morally ambiguous protagonist, the femme fatale, the criminal tough guy, the murder plot, and the ton of money. All the ingredients are here for a straightforward potboiler neo-noir. The problem is that even in a suspense thriller/crime drama like this one, there has to be comic relief. And there is not a single drop of comic relief in this movie. Not an ounce.

The result is that we’ve got a drama that takes itself waaay too fucking seriously. For God’s sake, this is a movie with perhaps the most basic boilerplate neo-noir premise imaginable. A movie in which the protagonist is “pursuing Justice” through the most contrived and heavy-handed metaphor the filmmakers could think of. A movie in which every character is painted with the broadest possible strokes and any illusion of depth comes from the strength of this absurdly over-qualified cast. That’s not even getting started on how the camera sometimes swoops around in a conspicuous way that’s clearly supposed to look cool and only looks pathetically out-of-place.

So much about this movie is already ludicrous, yet there’s no joy anywhere to be found in any of it. Quite the contrary, everyone in the cast and crew is taking all of this deathly seriously. Paradoxically, this means that the movie becomes a parody of itself even before the big twist.

Something else about the neo-noir genre is that we already know the original premise is bullshit. It’s Mystery Thriller 101: Every character is a liar. If the femme fatale wants our main character to commit a murder, then it’s obviously because of some other reason we don’t know about yet. So the audience is automatically on high alert, looking for clues and inconsistencies and anything that might suggest what’s really going on.

Thus the audience pays exceptionally close attention to the strange man with a suit and a briefcase (played by Jeremy Strong), the weird connection between Baker and his estranged son (played by Rafael Sayegh), the errant cat, Justice, and so on. And as this keeps going on, it becomes increasingly obvious that none of these clues or oddities have much of anything to do with the central crime thriller, leading all of us to wonder just how precisely all of this ties together.

Then we find out. And the movie jumps the shark. Into orbit. On a middle-finger-shaped rocket powered by every last fuck the filmmakers ever had to give.

There are plot twists, there are genre twists, and then there’s… I dunno, watching a hockey game only to find out after the second period that we were watching a pinball tournament the whole time. That’s what this is. It makes absolutely no sense, it doesn’t remotely mesh with any of the themes explored so far, and it throws away every setup in the entire goddamn film to be resolved with a payoff only a step or two above “It was all a dream.”

Critics of the time compared this to The Book of Henry, and it’s easy to see why: Both are movies with ambitious yet squirrelly premises that could only have been salvaged with a totally different genre, and both premises are centered around a withdrawn teenage boy whose intelligence is superhuman bordering on magical. But at least Book of Henry was up-front and self-aware about its own ridiculous premise and showed a sense of humor about it. By contrast, this joyless slog looks even dumber and more pretentious for refusing to acknowledge that this is all bullshit.

With that third-act twist, the whole movie is reduced to a juvenile mess in the worst way. The stakes are removed, the character development arcs are rendered moot, every single setup and payoff is voided, and every single plot development is reduced to “because the plot says so.” Literally the entire uncle-felching story is rendered pointless, and for no reason at all.

I’m trying, folks. I’m really trying to find a single redeeming thing about this movie and that twist. As best I can figure, the filmmakers were trying to devise some rumination about fate, luck, destiny, the laws of physics and probability, the will of God, and so on. It makes a kind of sense that the filmmakers would want to explore this through a fisherman protagonist, as fishermen are such a notoriously superstitious breed. But then the filmmakers took it several steps too far and made something functionally brain-dead when it should have been thoughtful and intelligent.

In fact, you know when I said that only a complete change in genre could have salvaged this? I take that back. This did not need a massive script overhaul. All it needed was a bit of selective editing and probably a few days of reshoots to smooth out the resulting holes in the third act. Quick and easy. When the test screenings came in and it became immediately obvious that the big third-act twist wasn’t working, and the studio delayed release for so many months, why the hell didn’t they use that time to schedule reshoots and put in the effort that might have fixed the damn thing?!

Serenity (2019) is a work of malice. Everyone involved in this — from the financiers to Steven Knight himself down to the last member of this wonderfully talented cast — should have known better. It’s staggering to think of how much money was lost, how many bridges were burned, and how many audience members got swindled out of their ticket money (not many in that last group, mercifully) because not a single person in the cast or crew had the courage or good sense to say that this script is the dumbest fucking thing to ever cost $25 million.

The minute this movie hit theaters, every critic immediately knew that it was destined for hundreds of year-end “Worst of” lists. This movie shows clear hatred toward the audience and thus deserves all the hatred it gets. FUCK THIS MOVIE.

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