WASHINGTON — Some fishing expeditions you wish you didn’t take, especially when you are baited by a skilled fisherman slinging a deep cast before the line snaps mid-reel, old chum.
That’s the case with “Serenity,” which packs a star-studded lineup of Oscar-capable actors for a tropical thriller sunk by a twist that eliminates the stakes entirely. It’s a shame as filmmaker Steven Knight’s previous film, the British indie gem “Locke” (2013), remains one of my favorite flicks of the 21st century, shot entirely from the vantage point of Tom Hardy’s steering wheel.
As for “Serenity,” the plot concerns deep-sea fisherman Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), who lives in a shipping container on the tropical island of Plymouth. By day, he teams with first-mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) to chase his “white whale” of an elusive fish on his charter boat Serenity. By night, he has passionate sex with his girlfriend Constance (Diane Lane). One fateful evening, his daily routine is rocked when his mysterious ex-wife Karen Zariakas (Anne Hathaway) returns to offer him money to kill her abusive new husband Frank (Jason Clarke).
The setup is intriguing in Act One, echoing Howard Hawks’ adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not” (1944), as McConaughey and Lane do their best Bogie and Bacall impressions. Lane’s husky voice is a direct homage, as is McConaughey’s restless angler, a rugged role that fits the brooding whispers we’ve come to expect from the McConaissance.
He echoes Bogart again when Hathaway suddenly shows up at his local watering hole: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” This time, however, she’s a femme fatale like Jane Greer entering through the Acapulco sun in Jacques Tourneur’s “Out of the Past” (1947), pivoting the film into neo-noir territory like Lawrence Kasdan’s steamy “Body Heat” (1981) and its husband-whacking predecessor, Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” (1944).
These noir archetypes are met with chiaroscuro lighting by Knight and cinematographer Jess Hall (“Transcendence”), who paint Venetian-blind shadows across doomed faces. Bizarrely, they also employ highly stylized camera movements that start behind characters’ heads then whip around to see their faces, a flashy choice that breaks the genre’s otherwise gritty spell.
Our initial intrigue shows further cracks as we realize there’s more than meets the eye on this island. Our first clue is mysterious salesman Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong), who repeatedly chases McConaughey down the dock holding a briefcase, conveniently too late as the boat departs. We also see flashes of McConaughey’s son sitting in front of his computer in an attempt to block out his abusive stepfather. What is the connection between father and son?
The answer is revealed in a preposterous plot twist. Rather than pleasantly surprising us with a shocking moment that adds layers to what we’ve already seen, the twist makes us feel so misled that we realize we’ve wasted our time investing in the characters. In other words, the reveal removes all stakes from the movie we think we’ve been watching up until this point.
Even the characters themselves aren’t sure how to react to the twist. Prior to the reveal, the salesman urges McConaughey not to commit the murder and to instead distract himself by using a special fish finder. After the reveal, he suddenly no longer cares about the fish finder and wants him to go ahead with the murder. His change of heart makes absolutely no sense.
More importantly, McConaughey and Hathaway’s motives are rendered meaningless. Before the twist, we are invested in the life-or-death outcome of their scheme. After the twist, who really cares if she persuades him to go along with it? Who cares if he even kills the husband? The act has zero bearing on the ultimate outcome of the new framing device, so why watch?
As for Lane, she practically disappears from the final third. Perhaps Knight hopes we’ll forget about her character so that we don’t contemplate how her early sex scenes are actually kind of gross in hindsight. We won’t spoil why, but you’ll shudder as you leave the movie theater.
In the end, the movie can’t figure out what it wants to be. Is it a nautical noir like “The Lady from Shanghai?” A high-seas adventure like “Moby Dick?” Or a “Lost” island fantasy? Knight just followed “Locke” with Locke, only this time there’s no moving the island. Or is there?