Review: Serenity Serves Up Too Much Style and Not Enough Substance

This one might literally be too difficult to dissect even a bit without running the risk is confusing you or unintentionally ruining something. The truth is, I can hear the criticisms already: Serenity, the latest from writer/director Steven Knight (Locke), is too melodramatic or too overdone. Some will say the performances are over-stylized, much like the film itself, and that once Knight finally reveals exactly what’s going on, it’s not worth it. This is a tale of a slightly mental fishing boat captain named Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) who is obsessed with catching a massive (perhaps mythical) tuna fish off the coast of a tropical locale called Plymouth Island. He’s also perpetually broke and about to be given the commission of a lifetime by the love of his life, none of which is a coincidence, nor does it play out in the conventional way stories tend to.

Image courtesy of Aviron

Dill is ex-military who fought in the Middle East and is frequently terrorized at night by nightmares/memories from his time overseas. It has led to everything from a bad temper and an abundance of drinking to obsessive behavior—particularly about said big fish. The only person that seems to be able to stand him for long stretches is his first mate and best friend Duke (Djimon Hounsou), but even he gets driven away when the money dries up. Then along comes Dill’s stunning ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway), who left him while he was at war and remarried an abusive piece of work named Frank (Jason Clarke), who is so irredeemable as a human being, he almost doesn’t seem real (which might be your first clue that nothing is what it seems in Plymouth Island). 

It turns out that Karen and Dill also share a son that Dill hasn’t seen in years, and it’s one of the many things that haunts him daily. It turns out the kid is a bit strange and withdrawn, but gifted with computers, likely a by-product of locking himself in his room when his mother and stepfather fight, which is often. Dill misses the boy so much, he’s convinced he hears his voice sometimes, so when Karen proposes that Dill take her husband on a chartered fishing trip and push him overboard for the sharks to have their way with him, he’s most tempted when she dangles their son before him as an incentive for the crime. There’s an island filled with colorful supporting characters (including Diane Lane as Dill’s main squeeze, although not a love interest; her character may seem underwritten, but again, there’s a reason for that) who greet Dill throughout his day and provide him just enough daily gossip to realize that everyone on the island seems to know everything and are eager to share. The place ain’t normal.

The plot of Serenity is almost superfluous. What happens isn’t as important as why, and anything that doesn’t feed into Dill’s narrative is quickly pushed aside. The most curious character is Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong), a fishing supply salesman who has a difficult time intersecting with Dill to pitch him the idea of a new piece of high-tech fishing equipment. But Reid wants answers as well and perhaps to even propose a few theories of his own about the island and Dill’s decision to kill Frank. It makes an already curious film become all the more so when this strange little man enters to picture.

The seductive ex-wife, the villainous husband, and the tortured boat captain all feel like characters in a sexy ’80s new noir like Body Heat, which is exactly what the filmmaker wants us to believe we’re watching. But the truth is just so out there (and revealed much earlier than you might think), that you either have to buy into it and continue the insane ride like a willing mental patient, or you’ll shake your head and reject the proceedings early on. And both decisions make perfect sense. I’ll admit, I love it when a film surprises me as completely as this one did.

But the real question is, are all of the twists and turns worth it? Do they pay off? And that’s a complicated question with Serenity. One the one hand, you get a McConaughey performance that might be him at his most tormented and angst-ridden, almost to the point of parody, and I’m fairly certain that’s not what he was going for. Hathaway’s performance, as well, is so affected here that it seems wildly inappropriate for the material, and as I’ve hinted, that might not be accidental. 

The film is certainly never boring or predictable, which is always a plus. But in the end, I’m not sure Serenity amounts to anything (not that every film needs to). But there is so much time devoted to the actual storytelling device behind Dill’s very existence that it really does seem necessary that something about this movie pays off fully by the end. It’s a closer call than you might think, and if any of the actors in this film are ones whose work you consider great in just about anything, it might be worth it for you to check this one out. Otherwise, Serenity’s noble attempt at baffling us cinematically might be too much style over substance for most.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.