When it comes to seeing movies, people like to know what they’re going into. Films with low CinemaScores tend to be where the marketing did not match up with the actual film, so something like Killing Them Softly, which is sold as an action film, gets an “F” because it’s actually about the decline of America and how in an economic crisis even hitmen can’t get paid. By the metric of what’s being sold and what the film actually is, I imagine most people will hate Steven Knight’s new movie, Serenity. What’s being sold as a sultry thriller is only what’s on the surface of a movie with an absolutely bonkers twist. Even if you see the twist coming, you won’t believe that Knight actually went for, and it pays off for a film that’s far more memorable than a B-movie tale of sex and murder.
Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fisherman living on the island of Plymouth where he’s always broke as he tries to catch a big tuna that consumes his every waking hour. Baker is content to try and catch the big fish every day until his ex-wife, Karen (Anne Hathaway), strolls back into his life with a proposition. Her new husband, Frank (Jason Clarke), is physically abusive to both her and Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), the son she had with Baker back when he went by his real name, John. Karen offers to pay Baker $10 million in cash if he takes Frank out on his boat, kills him, and feeds him to the sharks. Meanwhile, a mysterious figure (Jeremy Strong), keeps trying to track Baker down for an important conversation.
For the first two-thirds of Serenity, the film is kind of baffling. It’s tough to understand what’s happening because its banality seems to be covering up something more complicated and engaging, and you want to peek behind the curtain. You watch Oscar-winners McConaughey and Hathaway exchange reheated dialogue from Body Heat and you wonder why two A-list actors would star in what appears to be a Skinemax movie. Nothing seems to make a lot of sense in terms of the tone, and you’re constantly wondering what Strong’s character is up to.
I made a guess early on (about twenty minutes into the movie) about what the twist could be, and I turned out to be right. But I wouldn’t call Serenity predictable because I was stunned that Knight actually went for it. The twist is stunningly audacious and the kind of swing for the fences where I have to respect the ambition involved. For some people, the twist won’t work and it will render a film where they had already checked out as unsalvageable. And I’ll admit that the twist doesn’t work completely because it forces you to reevaluate things that no longer make sense in the new context. But overall, I think the twist serves the movie well and gives Serenity a heart where before there was only tired clichés.
In order to explain why I like the movie, I’m going to have to reveal the twist because talking around it is both a disservice to the film and to you, the reader. If you want to go in cold—and you absolutely should before anyone spoils this movie for you—please stop reading now, and come back after you see Serenity. Even if you don’t like the movie, I think you’ll at least admire its gall.
Spoilers ahead. Final warning.