In writer/director Steven Knight’s new slow burn, mystery thriller Serenity, there’s a blue sky paradise somewhere in the Atlantic, presumably off the coast of Florida but you’re never quite sure where. It’s called Plymouth Island. It’s small, tropical, and surrounded by endless miles of ocean. And there’s something strange going on.
No, wait. Scratch that. There’s something weird going on.
The unlikely named Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a grizzled, down-on-his-luck captain of a fishing boat. By night he lives alone in an abandoned commercial ship’s container, converted into a rusty looking metallic cabin by a cliff. By day he takes tourists out onto the ocean to fish. But when a certain oversized tuna swims alongside and bites the hook, Dill has an annoying habit of suddenly grabbing the rod from the tourist and doing the fishing himself. He’s an unshaven, sun-bleached Captain Ahab, obsessing over something he calls ‘The Beast,’ and it really annoys the tourists.
There’s a routine to his day. Each morning he drives to the shore, listening to the island’s only radio station where the DJ (Redd Pepper) wraps the weather forecast by saying that the conditions are “Perfect to go out there on the ocean and catch that damn fish.” It’s as if the announcer is talking directly to Dill.
The work, however, is not always there. Constance (Diane Lane) occasionally helps by giving Dill a few bills after he’s given her a little something himself at the end of the day. “I am increasingly fond of the way you say hello,” she says before exchanging cash as Dill gets out of the bed and starts to dress.
But then, in the tradition of all the intentionally trashy film noirs, the ones adapted from a drug store dime novel with sexy interludes, shadowy things going on, and sprinklings of salty dialog, the plot thickens. Karen (Anne Hathaway) is a blonde femme-fatale with a huge diamond ring on her wedding finger; it glistens under a light as she walks into the island’s only bar. She enters and approaches Dill with an offer he should really refuse. Karen knows Dill from a previous time before he vanished and hid away on a tropical island. Back then he had a different name. “I’m just waiting for a few things back home to lose their significance,” he explains.
Karen even has a son by him. But she married. She may now be rich, but she’s unhappy. The guy that Karen lives with back on the mainland is a repellent pig of a violent abuser called Frank (Jason Clarke). He beats her and bullies their son.
Here’s her deal. Karen wants Dill to take Frank out fishing, get him drunk on booze that shouldn’t be on the boat, then throw him overboard for the sharks to finish off. For that, she’ll pay $10 million in cash. No questions. But like those fish on a bad day, Dill doesn’t bite. At least, not at first.
So far, so regular. But Steven Wright is a clever man. He wrote not only the outstanding 2003 mystery/drama Dirty Pretty Things, the recent yet-to-be-released sequel World War Z 2, directed Tom Hardy in the unusual though gripping one-man-in-a-car drama Locke, and even created the phenomenally successful TV quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? you instinctively know there’s something else going on other than simply trouble in paradise. And Dill’s beginning to notice.
For some reason, everyone on the island, from the bartender to the woman behind the counter at the store, even Constance, knows what’s happening in Dill’s life, and they constantly pass a remark. It’s as if the Islanders are all wired to each other with a toll-free secret gossip hotline, and all they talk about is Dill.
Then there’s the fastidious guy in a suit carrying a briefcase (Jeremy Strong) who, like Alice’s time-chasing rabbit, always seems to be late by just a few seconds in catching Dill before the man heads out to sea. There’s also the map of the island. Like Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner, every time Dill tries to find out exactly where he is on the map, all that he can find is the island surrounded by water. There’s nothing else. It’s all beginning to seem odd. Though, perhaps the oddest of all is the sudden realization he has a connection with his son somewhere back on the mainland that borders on supernatural. Karen tells Dill that the boy can often hear Dill’s thoughts as he thinks them. “There’s weird stuff going on right now,” Dill tells the blonde.
What it all means, how it plays out, and how you respond will depend on your own level of tolerance. There’ll be two distinct camps with nothing in between. Once the pieces fall into place and the big reveal arrives, you’ll either think, well, that was ingenious, or like the twist in M.Night Shyamalan’s The Happening, you’ll ultimately think the whole thing has gone completely off the rails. The latter camp for me.
But at least, it’s unpredictable. There’s almost nothing that hints what’s really going on, even though you know there has to be a con in the works somewhere, whether it’s Hathaway’s blonde who just might be setting Dill up for a spectacular fall, or whether this is really another magical island in the vein of TV’s Lost. And where does Duke (Djimon Hounsou) fit in, particularly when everything he says sounds as if he’s really Dill’s Jiminy Cricket rather than a ship’s first mate?
There’s a kind of clue, and it occurs right at the opening. In the way that Renee Zellweger’s Roxie at the beginning of Chicago viewed all of the musical numbers in her mind’s eye, there’s a similar shot here at the beginning of Serenity. The camera closes in on a pair of eyes – we don’t know who – until we’re close enough to see right into the pupil. Reflected within the rounded black lens is Dill’s fishing boat bobbing in the water. But before you think, ah, I’ve got it; it’s all in someone’s imagination, just as those musical sequences were for Roxie – slow down. You’re not even scratching the surface.
Technically, there are things to admire as long as you’re attuned to Wright’s intentions. Jess Hall’s widescreen cinematography is an eye-catcher, the performances are either deliberately underplayed or, as in the case of Jason Clarke’s abusive husband, deliciously overripe, and the sometimes colorful Chandler-esque dialog is fun, particularly as it’s all spoken straight, which only adds to the preposterous nature of the whole affair. But in the end, all most moviegoers will want to know before going in is, is it any good and who’s in it? When they come out disappointed and feeling tricked, technical achievements and style will mean nothing.
What begins as a neo-noir – a throwback to the 40s and 50s hardboiled, tawdry crime and passion mysteries but with a present-day setting – ends up as being something annoying and, frankly, unforgivably loony.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 106 Minutes