“There’s some weird stuff going on right now,” drawls Matthew McConaughey in Serenity. He doesn’t know the half of it. McConaughey plays Baker Dill, a fisherman on the picturesque, ambiguously-located Plymouth Island. Baker spends his days taking lazy tourists for chartered fishing trips while obsessing over a particular tuna that has evaded him multiple times. His first mate Duke (the always-charismatic Djimon Hounsou) worries about Baker’s deteriorating mental state, as well as the pair’s dwindling funds.
Suddenly, with eerie timing, Baker’s ex-wife Karen re-enters his life. On vacation with her abusive husband Frank (Jason Clarke), a wealthy gangster, she makes Baker a scandalous offer: kill Frank in exchange for a hefty payday. Complicating the issue is Baker’s and Karen’s son Patrick, staying at home for the vacation but a regular victim of his stepfather’s wrath. Meanwhile, a mysterious businessman (Jeremy Strong) attempts to track down Baker to give him some important information. To say anything more about this last part would be to enter spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that things take a major turn late in the movie. More on that later.
Serenity’s first act is watchable, if unremarkable. The setting is pleasantly photographed, the stakes of the classic noir plot are set up efficiently, and the actors all give game performances – although their tones don’t exactly mesh. McConaughey is magnetically dour as Baker, rarely smiling and communicating the ennui of a meaningless life in a straight-faced performance. Hathaway and Clarke go the opposite route, camping it up with gusto. The former, sporting a platinum blonde hairdo and an old-fashioned beauty mark, leans into the raspy theatricality endemic to the leading ladies of noir’s heyday, while the latter all but twirls his mustache as the cartoonishly evil brute.
As the movie progresses, the first signs of impending disaster start to crop up. To begin with, there are the terrible sped-up pans, a camera trick best known from cinematographic landmarks such as MTV’s Cribs. Then the dialogue grows increasingly bizarre, with characters repeating the same phrases and making nonsensical references to Patrick’s computer game back home. This stylized writing might have worked in an off-kilter, Lynchian sort of way if it had been present from the beginning, but it’s too much of a curveball to be anything but shrill. As these little moments began to accumulate, I knew that this movie had something up its sleeve, and it wasn’t anything good. My suspicions were right, but I could have never predicted the spectacular failure that lay in store.
Now, back to that aforementioned twist. I won’t say exactly what happens, but this paragraph could be considered somewhat spoiler-y. Serenity’s third-act revelation is easily one of the most baffling, ridiculous, and nonsensical plot turns I’ve seen in any movie, let alone a major studio release led by two Oscar winners. In retrospect I should have seen it coming, as the movie drops some fairly clunky hints early on, but I suspect my brain simply refused to acknowledge something so insane as a possibility.
The development in question would be a fun, risible ending had it capped off the movie, and an intriguingly high-concept hook had it come at the beginning, but its awkward placement two-thirds in sends the movie off the rails without any hope of recovering. It simply upstages everything else in the movie, raising so many questions – of both the ‘how is this meant to work’ and ‘how did this get made’ varieties – that it becomes impossible to care about any of the remaining plot, let alone the preceding buildup. But Serenity, not content to be a one-punchline movie, manages to top itself in its finale, taking its already-confounding twist to even nuttier heights. It is one of the finest so-bad-its-good endings I’ve ever seen; too bad it’s from an only sometimes so-bad-it’s-good movie. But for fellow aficionados of cinematic ineptitude, Serenity still gets my conditional recommendation.