Though I didn’t expect to be commenting on such a fundamental subject in a review, the release of Serenity last weekend inspired a new low, so here we are.
One of the central pillars of narrative filmmaking is believability. For an audience to engage with a storyline and its characters, it is essential that they believe in what they are seeing, that the characters are who they say they are and the world they inhabit exists.
One of the quickest tests to determine whether an actor’s performance is “good acting” is to ask yourself if you believe them, because, basic though it is, that task is herculean. If you can see a famous actor in a movie, recognize them instantly as one of your favorites from six other movies and then still believe in their performance, you can see why they make the big bucks.
Believability, however, doesn’t necessarily mean realism, and it is far more important that a film is internally coherent. Each fictional film builds a world for itself, and if the rules of that world are properly communicated and adhered to, the audience will come along for the ride. For example, it makes no sense for modern-day police to appear in a movie about King Arthur, but when that movie is Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the absurdity is totally believable.
The thriller genre adds another layer of complexity to this by withholding this sense of cohesion until the film’s final moments, intending that the viewer doubt and disbelieve until some crucial mystery has been revealed. The best thrillers are tense and murky for most of the runtime, but once the climactic secret is discovered, everything snaps beautifully into place and things that seemed confusing suddenly make total sense.
This feeling of revelation is what director Steven Knight’s Serenity aspires to. Starring Matthew McConaughey as moody fishing boat captain Baker Dill, the film puts Dill’s life of drinking and obsessing over a particularly large tuna at risk when his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) suddenly appears with a proposition: Kill her abusive second husband to save her and Dill’s son, and take home a cool ten million dollars in the process. What Knight intended to happen is obvious — use the sleepy island’s inhabitants to create an eerie atmosphere, drip-feed information about Dill’s past and sprinkle moments of the unexplainable to set up an original, earthshattering twist. As plans of attack go, it’s not too shabby. Unfortunately for Knight, believability quickly becomes an issue, and it starts with the supporting cast.
Everyone on the island is a little odd, to the point of being formulaic types instead of people, and this in itself isn’t terrible. A thriller, remember, is supposed to make things seem off, to trigger our suspicion. But when many of the characters are hardly believable as human beings, Jeremy Strong’s bespectacled mystery man in particular, we question too much too soon. When Strong reaches the dock late and barely misses Dill for at least the third time, he announces his schedule is twenty seconds behind (à la Adjustment Bureau) and we’re left trying to figure out how that fits into the story (spoiler alert: it really doesn’t).
Hathaway’s performance has been likened to a live-action Jessica Rabbit, and though she reminded me more of something from Sin City, her character certainly doesn’t belong anywhere near this movie. Knight seems unsure whether he wanted to make a slick, modern thriller or a smoky neo-noir, and Serenity ends up a tonal mess. Instead of having an air of conspiracy, Dill’s island just seems ridiculous, and the entire story feels lesser because of it.
When the twist is finally revealed, the curtain pulled back on something we’ve been able to see for at least half an hour, new questions pop up at an alarming rate. Without revealing anything, McConaughey’s character is more than he should be, the conflict of the third act doesn’t have any logic to it, and Hathaway’s character is seriously disturbing when you think about it. Believability doomed Serenity from the start, though it doesn’t help that it is also full of cheesy lines and lame stylistic flourishes. I can’t say its awfulness is totally unenjoyable, but unless you’re going to a midnight screening of The Room, you should never pay full price to laugh at a movie.
WhatsUpRI Rating: 1 out of 5
WhatsUp Ratings Guide
5- Excellent – Don’t miss it
4- Very Good – Well worth your time
3- Good – Solid, but not earthshattering
2- Fair – Not quite ready for prime time
1- Poor – Don’t waste your time or money