“Serenity” is a bold movie: daring, gutsy, painting in broad strokes. It takes chances -- and for this I liked it, even though it derails near the end.
The film was something of a must-see for me, partly because of its impressive cast -- Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Djimon Hounsou, Jason Clarke -- but mostly because I keep hoping writer Steven Knight will pen another film as good as “Eastern Promises.” This isn’t the movie I was wanting, but it’s one of the few scripts Knight himself also directed, and his visual style is a pleasure to behold, with terrific cinematography by Jess Bell.
McConaughey plays a fishing captain on fictional Plymouth Island, where his quest for a legendary tuna is interrupted by an old flame, who offers him $10 million to take her abusive husband out on a cruise and feed him to the sharks. Knight makes this initial story a morality play, with Captain Dill fighting the temptation to commit cold-blooded murder for badly needed cash.
Up to this point, “Serenity” feels like an old-fashioned melodrama, with a down-on-his-luck, hard-drinking hero, a sultry femme fatale (Hathaway) and a truly despicable villain, played with sinister, love-to-hate malice by Clarke.
Through all this, Knight and his excellent cast keep the potential potboiler firmly under control, and I was really settling into its assured, grand-gesture groove when suddenly the story took a huge left turn, about which the previews were wise to keep mum.
Thereafter, the film remains absorbing as we seek to piece together what’s really going on; but Knight’s bold move tends to vitiate our concern for the characters, making us step back and scratch our heads rather than drawing us closer to these people and their plight. At the same time, Knight blithely ditches his morality-play, and we actually start wanting Dill to bump off the bum.
As a brazen feat of narrative audacity, the sudden plot-shift works okay -- but Knight must then take a much more superficial approach to ethics than he did in the bloody but conscionable “Eastern Promises.”
“Serenity” feels like two different movies glued awkwardly together; yet they both work pretty well. Critics generally hated this movie (some saying it would emerge as the year’s worst film); but I don’t think too many folks will feel ripped off. In an era rife with franchises and sequels, you have to admire a tale that courageously throws all caution to the wind.
At the very least, it suggests that Hollywood is still capable of something truly original.
written & directed by Steven Knight
Run time: 106 min.
* * * (out of four)
Rated R for bloody images, and strong language and sexuality