Review: ‘Serenity’ (an M. Night Shyamalan-less film)

The rules must change.

Welcome to Plymouth Island, where every day is perfect for fishing and it only rains at night… like Camelot. Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a local fisherman trying to stay ahead of bank payments for his boat, Serenity, when he’s not trying to catch a legendary tuna he’s named “Justice.” His first-mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) tries to keep Baker honest, but when money isn’t coming in, opportunities tend to present themselves to tide things over, often a smitten woman named Constance (Diane Lane). Baker’s thoughts lately have become occupied by a boy from his past: Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), with whom he shares an almost psychic connection. It isn’t long after before a mysterious woman (Anne Hathaway) also from Baker’s past arrives on the island… as well as a driven businessman (Jeremy Strong) who keeps missing desperate face-to-face meetings with Mr. Dill.

While January is ever the dumping ground for studios to offload risky or difficult-to-promote films, one hopes a gem can be found. With an all-star cast of name actors and a beautiful location, the trailers suggest secrets coming to light, a femme fatale, and murder most foul… all the ingredients for an intimate little thriller reminiscent of Dead Calm. But can writer/director Stephen Knight — screenplay writer for Eastern Promises — deliver the goods or be shamed for making people wonder why Firefly: The Movie is back in theaters when they’re just now hearing about it?

Saying what this film truly is without giving away the farm is a worthy challenge. It is safe to say it isn’t just what you see on the surface; it’s an existential thriller built around a significant M. Night-worthy twist that presents an interesting dilemma. What would it take to do the wrong thing for the right reasons, regardless of risk or reward? By breaking character and making the difficult choice — one that everyone around you advises against — are you defying fate or solidifying your purpose as a pawn under someone else’s control? Say what you will, but McConaughey manages to do something interesting as the protagonist held to exactly that ideal, and if you buy into the twist, the rewards will be great.

Feeling a little like Basic Instinct meets The Village, the Shyamalan reference is well-earned and incurs the same issue as all of M. Night’s work: once disbelief fails to be suspended, the rest of the film becomes tedious. Many performances feel very wooden ahead of this change from pretty much everyone without exception. There are even a few Shutter Island moments calling unrealistic attention to little details in a overintentional way. Post-twist, much of this makes more sense even while the story continues, but at the same time it undercuts the significance of the characters and their lives: “What’s the point?”

Yet there is meaning beyond this revelation and action required, even if only to inspire, and this is where the film succeeds. If the movie looks like it could get dark, it can… and does, in a way that is fairly courageous and original. Director Knight hitches everything to this payoff and, while not perfect, accomplishes what he set out to do. It happily encourages you to think while not being an entirely happy solution and certainly isn’t what you’d call forgettable. If you’re looking for something different and unexpected, book a fishing trip to Plymouth Island and ask for Baker Dill… but don’t go alone.

Serenity is rated R for language throughout, sexual content, some bloody images, and an occasionally nude McConaughey.

Three skull recommendation out of four

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