Let’s Talk About the Bonkers Twist in Serenity

Photo: Aviron Pictures

Spoilers for Serenity abound.

Every January, moviegoers and critics alike are treated to a slate of new releases that major studios dump from their roster during awards season. The quality of these movies varies widely (good, bad, fun-bad, crazy-bad, crazy-fun bad, etc.), but most of them are low-risk, low-confidence projects that offset the prestige fare receiving nationwide releases. However, every now and again, we’re treated to a January movie that, as Bilge Ebiri describes in his recent January-themed Vulture list, “has its own, brazen essence,” one that leans into the skid, so to speak. Sometimes a January movie comes along that embraces its own madness so convincingly that it’s difficult not to be just a little impressed.

Enter Serenity, a sun-drenched neo-noir with literary and classical Hollywood aspirations, by which I mean everyone involved tries really hard to ape To Have and Have Not. Matthew McConaughey plays Baker Dill, a fishing-boat captain living on the island of Plymouth who nurses scars from his tours in Iraq and his failed marriage. He earns a living by taking tourists on game-fishing trips on his boat, the Serenity, but frequently gets distracted by his quest to catch a rare tuna that eludes his grasp. One night, his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) comes to town with an ingenious plan in tow: Dill will bring her rich, abusive husband, Frank (Jason Clarke), on his boat to fish, get him drunk, and then push him overboard so he can be eaten by sharks. In return, Dill will receive $10 million and an opportunity to see their son, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), who has withdrawn into his computer to drown out the violence in his household.

This is a perfectly fine premise for a movie, one that allows McConaughey and Hathaway to cosplay their takes on Bogie and Bacall, respectively, while speaking in writer-director Steven Knight’s self-serious, hard-boiled dialogue. It’s easy to imagine a simplified version of Serenity that solely hinges on Dill reckoning with the moral dilemma over whether to kill Frank while combating his recurring feelings for Karen. All the noir tropes are present — long-buried secrets, old flames, shady villains, sexy flings, murder, casual alcoholism, etc. — for a sleek, straightforward January thriller.

Except that there’s a twist, and oh, boy, it’s a twist. Halfway through the film, Dill finally meets Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong), a traveling bait salesman who has been trying to get ahold of him for the past few days. After dancing around the subject at hand, Miller finally reveals that he’s “The Rules” and that they’re all in “a game.” While that might just sound like nihilist claptrap, it turns out to be literal truth: Dill, Miller, Karen, Frank, and everyone else in Plymouth all exist in an open-world video game created by Patrick. Patrick designed the game as a distraction so that he doesn’t murder his real-life abusive stepfather. The tasks Dill completes every day, such as taking tourists out on his boat or finding a lost cat for his casual hookup (Diane Lane) or trying to catch that rare tuna, are all part of the larger game to keep Patrick focused. The residents of Plymouth aren’t just nosy busybodies that keep tabs on everyone else. Instead, they’re there to make sure that Dill keeps completing his duties so Patrick doesn’t have to do something drastic. But when Miller lets the cat out of the bag, Dill faces a choice of whether to keep the game stable or blow it all up by “breaking the rules.”

This is, charitably, insane. An out-of-left-field twist like this with only the most minor foreshadowing (we enter the world of Serenity through Patrick’s eye, which retrospectively is the big tip-off, but also Patrick and Dill can sometimes telepathically communicate through water?) would sink most films, but Serenity arguably takes off after Dill learns the truth. The back half of Serenity morphs into a strange riff on The Truman Show, in which Dill finally sees his secluded island life as a contrived space. Everyone on the island consciously pushes Dill to follow a predetermined path, which mostly involves fishing and does not include murder. His reality now permanently compromised, Dill must contend with the fact that his decisions have inter-dimensional consequences, and that his actions reflect those of his son. The horary canard “everyone is connected” has rarely been this absurd.

Of course, such a twist opens up a can of worms so ridiculous and with such wide-reaching implications that it all but demands further analysis. Questions layered upon questions reveal themselves almost immediately as soon as Knight tips his hand. Vulture has decided to tackle just a few of them for those still reeling after viewing a January movie of this caliber.

What constitutes an in-world game?
In the big reveal scene, Miller explains that “Catch the Fish” and “Find the Cat” are missions that keep Dill, and subsequently Patrick, focused, but given that those are just glorified routine chores for Dill, it stands to reason that almost everything that Dill does in his life could be broadly considered a “game.”

So what else does Dill do in his daily life? He buys bait for fishing trips. He sells his catches to distributors. He drinks at the local bar. He argues with his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) over money. He ostensibly fixes up his boat. He cathartically swims in the ocean naked while reminiscing about formative experiences with his son. He has quite a bit of sex, oftentimes for pay, in case he doesn’t make enough on his fishing trips. He evades question after question from the locals. He speaks in hushed tones that imply a dark past he desperately tries to outrun. You know, enigmatic fisherman stuff.

Of course, open-world video games allow downtime and not everything that a character does adds up to some abstract point total. Then again, if “Find the Cat,” a mission with hardly much urgency that Dill neither jumps to complete nor faces consequences for ignoring, can fit the definition of a game, then logically any and all mundane actions are up for grabs. (Another question: Are there abstract point totals for completing these tasks, or is the reward always “didn’t commit murder today”?) “Sit & Contemplate” could theoretically be a game. So could “Drink Until Mental Trauma Has Subsided” or “Assume the Professional Requirements of a Gigolo.” Speaking of …

Does Patrick code all the sex his father has in the game?
Matthew McConaughey is either naked or in some form of undress for roughly 30 percent of Serenity. In between his brooding and fishing, he bones Diane Lane, and Steven Knight makes sure to emphasize that he rocks her world every single time. When Karen comes to town, she confronts Dill on his boat and, in a lengthy monologue, details how they got together and how they drifted apart, including the detail that they first had sex when she was 16 because he determined that she was finally old enough. Reeling from the near-constant physical abuse she faces at the hands of Frank, she initiates sex with Dill, who briefly penetrates her, before pulling away and announcing, “I win.” (What does he win, you ask? That’s up for debate, but it’s safe to assume that it’s not a set of steak knives.) Later, Karen uses Frank’s broken hand to choke her (to prove that he’s still capable of holding a fishing line despite his injury) and passive-aggressively calls him “daddy.”

It’s natural for Patrick, being a 14- or 15-year-old boy, to have some incipient sexual urges, but he appears to have coded graphic, often disturbing sexual encounters into his game. It’s one thing for Patrick to provide the opportunity for his father, or his father’s avatar, to have a healthy sex life in Plymouth. It’s another thing entirely to have him rely on Diane Lane’s sexual satisfaction for financial favors or to imagine contemptuous sex between his parents. Granted, children exposed to domestic abuse tend to cope in myriad, often inexplicable, ways, and while it’s natural for him to channel his murderous rage into creative pursuits, this seems like an odd way for that to manifest.

Incidentally, Dill’s active sex life also opens up the obvious question of free will, which Knight clearly wants the audience to entertain. How much is Dill acting on his own volition and how much is Patrick controlling the reins? We see Dill unable to leave his bed until his 5 a.m. alarm rings, which feels like a hard limit to his autonomy in Plymouth, but is he allowed to fuck freely? Could he stop having sex with Diane Lane when he wants, or will external forces literally drag him to her bed? Is he like a dirty marionette controlled by his traumatized son? Various factors circumscribe a person’s liberty even in the most ideal circumstances, and yet this seems like a disturbing bridge too far. Dill and Karen and Constance might be able to make their own sexual choices. On the other hand, they could be under a wicked coder’s spell. Naturally, these questions remain unanswered.

Does everyone in the game have a real-life avatar?
This one is a little more abstract, but given the kind of film we’re dealing with, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask if everyone in the game represents someone in Patrick’s life. At the very end of Serenity, after Dill finally throws Frank overboard and correspondingly Patrick stabs his stepfather, it’s revealed that Patrick’s sympathetic high-school principal is named Dill Baker. Extending the logic of this decision to have Patrick’s father use an inverse of his principal’s name within the world of Plymouth, it’s entirely possible that other people in the game have origins in the tangible world as well.

Maybe the morally righteous Duke, who goes out of his way to prevent Dill from killing Frank, is based on one of Patrick’s equally alienated friends who cautions him against murdering his stepfather. It’s possible that Constance is some kind of sexy next-door neighbor whose cat always gets loose in the neighborhood, forcing Patrick to take up the mantle of returning it to her safe and sound. How about the other various ancillary figures in Plymouth? Could the prying bait saleswoman really be a concerned, but socially graceless guidance counselor at Patrick’s school? Is the local bartender, who spouts concerned wisdom like the archetype he is, a real-world priest of some kind? Perhaps the old drunk who relies on Dill’s financial generosity for his alcohol intake is really a friendly neighborhood homeless man.

Knight presents so many complications in Serenity’s internal logic that it’s difficult to keep up, but this one has an easy write-around: An open-world game naturally has to feature plenty of tertiary characters with whom the protagonist can engage. Serenity’s supporting ensemble could function as the equivalent of nameless townsfolk. But wouldn’t it be a more whimsical decision if everyone had their own parallel identity?

Is Plymouth a video game or purgatory or both?
At the end of Serenity, it’s revealed that John, Patrick’s real father, was killed in Iraq and posthumously awarded the Purple Heart for his bravery. Thus, the life of Baker Dill logically represents an alternate reality where Patrick’s father had survived the war. This naturally poses the question of whether Plymouth epitomizes some sort of purgatorial space akin to the Island on Lost. While Dill spent his days fishing, drinking, and pining over a mythical tuna, should he have been searching for the task that will finally deliver him to the Great Beyond? He could never have guessed that that task would be conspiring to help his son kill his abusive stepfather from beyond the grave.

Here’s where things get a little confusing: Is Plymouth purgatory or merely a video game? If it’s just a video game as the film states, then Patrick invented an entire reality where he controls his father, who otherwise believes he still exists in the real world, as he constantly lives in a self-destructive state, torturing himself with memories of the mistakes he’s made and the pain he’s caused, which is all well and good. (Not really, but still.) However, if Dill has any semblance of free will whatsoever, which is an entirely debatable idea, and his daily life has been logistically unencumbered until Karen’s arrival, then Plymouth functionally operates as a liminal space between the world and the afterlife. If that’s the case, though, then Patrick, by all accounts, is God. (He’s God either way, but if Plymouth is purgatory, then Patrick’s abilities have larger religious and/or spiritual implications.) But if Plymouth is both a video game and purgatory, then God, who may or may not be a high-school-aged boy living in an abusive household, is a video-game developer who uses his infinite powers to preach the morality of justifiable homicide. If you suddenly smell bong smoke, don’t be alarmed.

Is Plymouth a marketable video game?
Strip away the lunacy and Serenity is a morality tale about whether it’s okay to do bad things for good reasons. Knight falls squarely on the yes side of this divide, as the film’s ending, in which Patrick is effectively cleared of all charges for his crime, indicates. But when Patrick returns to the warm embrace of his mother and starts to rebuild his life, what remains of all the work he did to create Plymouth? Patrick might have promised his father to build another game, one in which he can visit him (more evidence that Patrick is some kind of inter-dimensional deity), but he shouldn’t abandon Plymouth now that his stepfather is dead. He could easily market that game to various institutions, like universities or prisons, to teach nuanced moral tests, mainly “Is it okay to commit murder?” If anyone else other than Patrick plays their cards right, they’ll learn the answer is, “Sometimes.”

Let’s Talk About the Bonkers Twist in Serenity