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In Defense of Serenity

A spoiler-free apologia for this season's worst-reviewed movie.

Aviron Pictures

If there’s anything that you might already know about the new Matthew McConaughey movie Serenity, it’s that it contains a big twist. And if there’s anything you know about the big critics’ reviews, it’s that they are negative and full of spoilers. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody wrote in his pan that “[t]here’s almost nothing of consequence to discuss in Serenity that isn’t a spoiler, but there’s almost nothing in it that’s not spoiled in advance.” But if you like seeing authentically unusual movies, then ignore the haters: In its fusion of disparate genres, its sentimentality, and its weirdness, Serenity is actually worth watching. For a spoiler-free appreciation of this strange chunk of cinema, read on. I bet you can’t guess the twist.

We begin with the flash of a fin underwater. Though at first it seems like this fish is a bit of scenery, it actually turns out to be a central character in the movie. Our rugged hero Baker Dill (McConaughey) is a fisherman living on the Floridian island of Plymouth, and he’s obsessed with a tuna named Justice. He spars with his friend Duke (Djimon Hounsou) and everybody else in town who thinks he’s crazy. “I fish tuna,” Baker says. “You fish one tuna, man,” the villager replies. “And that’s the tuna in your head.”

Beneath the ripple of McConaughey’s muscle and the bright sunshine that plays on the water, the ghost of Hemingway stirs. Perhaps his most famous story, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea told of an elderly Cuban fisherman who, much like Baker Dill, hunts an elusive marlin in the Gulf Stream. In that story, the fisherman battles as much with fate as with the fish. Like Baker, he confronts the sea’s unknowability and frames its mystery in gendered terms: “The old man always thought of [the sea] as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.” According to Baker, the best way to catch tuna is by moonlight.

Baker is fighting a lot of things, literally and allegorically. He fights with an inexplicable compulsion to catch “Justice,” an aptly named prize that eludes him. Who is keeping him from this fulfillment? At the movie’s start, we don’t know if it’s women (he sleeps with a strange woman named Constance (Diane Lane) for cash, for fishing hooks) or fortune itself (in Hemingway’s story, the fisherman is cursed with salao, a Spanish word meaning both “salty” and “very bad luck”).

So, when Baker’s ex-wife shows up, she’s under a lot of symbolic pressure. As Karen, Anne Hathaway is smoldering of eye and Veronica Lake of hair. She behaves less like a real woman and more like some idea of an ex-wife gleaned from film noir. She is in Plymouth with her horribly abusive new husband, the one she left Baker for, and now she wants her ex to take him out on his boat and feed him to the fishes.

If you are starting to discern a layering of references at play in this movie—to books, to movies, to archetypes—then you are on the right track. The plot’s premises almost make too much sense; they function instinctively for the viewer, but only because the viewer has seen stories like this before. As the genres invoked start to clash, snagging on each other like tectonic plates in a subduction zone, something starts to feel off. There’s this unnamed character running around, a skinny little guy in glasses who is trying to catch Baker’s attention. What is he doing here? And why is Constance always trying to get Baker to find her wayward pet cat?

The snags start to play out through cinematography. In one scene, Baker strips off all his clothes (we see rather a great deal of his nude backside in this film) and heads for a cliff, to “take a shower,” fisherman-style. As he approaches the cliff jump, the camera starts to make strange moves, almost glitching. He plunges into the sea and that tuna fin flashes again.

It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that Baker and Karen share a son. His name is Patrick. Although he is very seldom on screen, Patrick is the core of this movie, and the conceptual location of its twist. In a more literal sense, once Patrick’s name starts being spoken, Baker’s compulsions start to change. He used only to care about catching Justice, but gradually he shifts his focus to the abusive husband, who lives with his son. On that boat, way out at sea, what or whom will Baker Dill choose to kill?

Again, the movie’s themes circle back to colliding templates. Hemingway wars with neo-noir; fatherly duty conflicts with conventional morality; Baker-on-land doesn’t match up with Baker-at-sea. Perhaps you can guess where the movie’s twist lies. I didn’t.

Brody’s chief complaint about Serenity concerns precisely this element of collision. Of its disparate elements, he accuses writer-director Stephen Knight (Dirty Pretty Things (2002), Eastern Promises (2007)) of grabbing a bunch of themes and throwing them together “raw, and then overcooked beyond recognition.” But I would argue that Serenity is served ceviche-style: raw, a little pickled, but surprisingly delicious.

If there’s one thing that Hollywood’s big-budget offerings lack these days, it’s the element of surprise. There was a fabulous crop of twist-movies in the early 2000s, including Memento (2000), The Others (2001), The Village (2004), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). But with the exception perhaps of two movies both starring Leonardo DiCaprio in 2010 (The Departed and Shutter Island), this kind of plot has all but disappeared.

Now the studio executives rely on us to open our wallets for the same thing over and over again. What else is a franchise but the familiar repetition of things we already enjoy? The Marvel Cinematic Universe has swallowed up the movie theaters the same way that a cupboard full of instant mac and cheese dictates what’s for dinner. Critics might reject Serenity for its silliness, or its failure to make a sophisticated sense out of all its patchwork elements. But for that very same reason, I found it refreshing beyond measure. Serenity’s glut of movie-making styles feels generous, to the viewer bored of sequels; to the very very bored, its investment in surprise feels like a gift. Mac and cheese is delicious, but sometimes you want the raw fish.