Serenity (2019)

“He’s dead in the water.”

Some films are incomprehensible because their great scope out distances the reach of their aim. Others are ambiguous for posterity’s sake, told in vague tongues with the sole hope of being discussed and dissected for years to come whilst never really being understood either. I think that Serenity exists in the middle ground of these two polar playgrounds. It’s bizarre to the point of being transfixing, borderline incomprehensible in spats but nevertheless enthralling, and features and acidic twist that makes the nonsense all the more palatable, even if it does leave your mouth puckered in engaged confusion. Serenity’s thematic arrow misses the final target by half a country mile, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that its bull-headed confidence and ambition didn’t force me to dig for the scraps underneath the surface. To decipher what all the fuss was about in the first place. There’s plenty to chew on, and with time, loads the ponder.

Likened to a rejected applicant from Nat Geo’s Wicked Tuna fishing program, Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) drinks hard and drags cigarettes, hardly sleeps, trolling the waters with more intuition than obvious skill. He takes tourists out to sea in the little town of Plymouth – a simple rock of a settlement, featuring one bar and one cop and one traffic light – to fish for sport, meanwhile crippled by his fascination with catching a prized tuna fish that continues to escape him. You could call it Jaws meets the prideful psychology of Moby Dick. To start, Serenity desperately wants to convince us that these scenes are part of a neo-noir thriller, painting its images with moody lighting, awkwardly puzzling dialogue, and a protagonist with an unraveling mind. It evokes similar hot-blooded titles from the 80’s, at least until things take a sharp right turn towards the outright obscure.

Karen Zariakas (Anne Hathaway) tracks Baker down for a visit, calls him John, and their secretive past – which includes a failed marriage and a son named Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) – becomes embroiled in the present. Karen’s now with Frank (Jason Clarke), a tycoon businessman and an abusive drunkard. Frank causes Karen to fear for her life, asking Baker to take her hooch-hound of a husband out to sea, to get him nice and liquored up, then ditch him overboard to be eaten with buckets of chum by patrolling sharks. 10 million dollars cash should do the trick. Baker considers the offer, all while the world around him slowly changes, bouncing around between characters who are driven by singularly designed goals. He feels as if he’s being played, and maybe he is.

Steven Knight’s Serenity most reminded me of Richard Kelly’s critically derided 2006 feature Southland Tales, in that both movies strive for social resonance with a pop culture appraisal that’s simply too absurd for its own good, focusing on the obscurity of it all rather than the severe dramatics bubbling just beneath the surface. But there’s still substance to be found here, mostly ingrained in the spiritual and dogmatic realms of humanity, utilizing and framing an all too obvious gotcha narrative device as a moment to champion the creative elements of technological prowess and the deeply cathartic emotions inherent to creativity storytelling. Serenity is messy, uneven, a bit too forceful at times. But that’s because the film embodies prayer through an omnipotent, indiscernible and all-powerful gaze, fulfilling the words of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s writing (which are part of the 12-step program to recovery), paving its way through carefully coded notes towards honest tranquility. Serenity is unique, outlandish, and quietly solemn. And sure, it’s underwritten and sometimes nonsensical, but that doesn’t make this furloughed head trip any less effectively dedicated or rewarding either. This is an Old Testament sermon told through the techniques of modern cinema. Despite the rocky results, the gall and the aggressive end game are worth the price of admission.

“You do know it’s just in your head, right?”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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