Note to Readers: This review contains no spoilers, to the point that it might seem unduly vague. I would encourage everyone to read no one but me as some of the other reviews have given everything — and I mean fucking everything — away.
The fishing noir Serenity is a fine example of a Ceiling-Watch movie. It has good actors — in this case, Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, and Djimon Hounsou — and it’s not reliably terrible (sometimes it’s okay), but you get embarrassed for the people involved and need short breaks, so you lean your head back and gaze at the ceiling. Ceilings of theaters can be interesting, especially old ones with intricate patterns. Even the new ones can hold your attention. The ceiling of the recently redesigned screening room where I saw Serenity was pocked with speakers, which, with the help of more on the side, made for killer sound. There are parts in Serenity when something vaguely supernatural happens and the tinkly triangles and shimmery harps came through nicely. I knew why because I had been ceiling-watching.
I’m mocking Serenity, but I feel a great deal of affection for it, because its writer and director, Steven Knight, set himself a very weird task and held firm. As he demonstrated in his one-man, one-set, one-camera-angle drama Locke, he’s drawn to men trapped (or locked) inside their own heads, with settings serving as metaphors for human isolation. Reaching out in despair into the darkness, these men become real in ways they’d never been before.
Serenity’s locked-in protagonist is McConaughey’s Baker Dill, who’s so obsessed with catching a humongous tuna (which he alternately calls “the Beast” and “Justice”) that all the folks on his small fishing island avidly follow his day-to-day attempts. Word of his adventures travels via his first mate, Duke (Hounsou), as well as Constance (Diane Lane), who lives in view of the pier and periodically hands over money to receive Dill’s pickle. McConaughey sheds his clothes a lot, and even allowing for body doubles he cuts a fine figure of a man, with well-marbled glutes, but the idea of Diane Lane having to pay for sex tells you something in this universe ain’t right.
Which brings me to the supernatural aspects of Serenity. The first image is of a pair of eyes that snaps open, after which the camera plunges into them to discover a monster of a fish, then rises above the water and hurtles towards a boat called — wait for it — “Serenity.” The title tells you that this boat is a refuge of sorts, but a refuge from what? From whom?
Dill is living under an assumed name, having survived a tour of Iraq. But he left something behind on the mainland — something that nags at him. The noir plot proper kicks in with the arrival of Karen, played by Hathaway with a strategically placed beauty-spot atop her left cheekbone. It turns out that after Dill came back from Iraq and couldn’t settle down, she left him for a very rich, very violent man named Frank Zariakas (Jason Clarke), whom she wants Frank to take tuna-fishing and pitch into the drink. It’s not just for her sake but the safety of her and Dill’s teenage son, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), with whom Dill has an odd, inexplicable psychic link. Perhaps the reason for that link will come from the skinny little fellow in the suit (Jeremy Strong) who follows Dill around, missing him by seconds and always puzzled by those misses (and those seconds).
You’ve got Jaws, you’ve got Double Indemnity, you’ve maybe got The Shining — what you don’t have is anything with an ounce of realism. The question is whether Knight is as clunky a writer and director as he seems or whether there is a method to his badness. To say much more would be criminal, to say much less would mean not doing my job — so I’ll say that there is, indeed, method, but not all the movie’s badness can be shrugged off. There’s deft clunkiness and clunky clunkiness.
Clunking the least deftly are the scenes between McConaughey and Hathaway — major ceiling-watch scenes. Hathaway is a smart actress and comedian but she’s lost here, plainly unable to stand the thought of playing an object and unable to find a middle ground between a noir femme and a real person. No wonder: There’s no there, there — the writing isn’t rich enough. Also, actors who don’t find a rhythm with McConaughey get left high and dry, since he makes so little effort to synch up with anyone else. McConaughey is best when he’s gnawing on the scenery by himself, either perched over the island’s lone bar while the movie-ish supporting players look on, concerned about Dill’s rum consumption, or staring into the sky, longing for his son or questioning his place in the cosmos. Or maybe he’s counting the speakers on the ceiling.
Serenity isn’t just meant to surprise you — which it will — but to give you an emotional wallop — which it may or may not. It didn’t work for me: I was too hung up on the fanciness (and, in truth, ridiculousness) of the final half-hour to feel everything Knight wanted me to feel. But it’s possible that audiences will warm to such a wacky gimmick. They do, from time to time. Just ask [name redacted] or [name redacted].