“Serenity” starts like a traditional film noir, glossy and heated, with a drinking, smoking, terminally broke anti-hero and a gorgeous femme fatale with a sweep of blond hair falling over one eye.
The main character even works on a fishing boat, renting rides to beer-drinking tourists, right out of Humphrey Bogart in “To Have and Have Not.”
As a modern tribute, something along the lines of more recent movies ranging from “Body Heat” to “Drive,” it’s almost lovable.
But then “Serenity” becomes something that’s absolutely not a film noir, and it just doesn’t work.
“Serenity” has a Shyamalan-esque twist, which won’t be revealed here.
Matthew McConaughey plays Baker Dill, a man living, and presumably hiding, on a remote island and running his fishing boat with first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou).
Baker occasionally sleeps with the lonely Constance (Diane Lane) or buys the local drunk a glass of rum. He barely gets by, but there are no real complaints, other than his obsession with catching one particularly elusive, huge tuna he has nicknamed “Justice.”
Then, she walks in. She’s Karen (Anne Hathaway), and she and Baker have a past, and a son, together.
She’s married to a drunken, violent brute, Frank (Jason Clarke), who is coming to the island for a fishing trip. She’ll pay Baker $10 million to take the husband out on the ocean, get him drunk, kill him and feed him to the sharks.
That’s a solid start, right out of “Double Indemnity” or “Human Desire” or other classics. “Serenity” is the third feature film directed by veteran screenwriter Steven Knight, whose last directorial effort, “Locke,” with Tom Hardy, was a model of economy and rich character development.
Knight also wrote the excellent screenplays for the dark crime films “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Eastern Promises.” When he’s good, he’s very, very good.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. He did the illogical Eric Bana thriller “Closed Circuit,” the dud “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” the barely-released “November Criminals,” and, now, “Serenity.” (Believe it or not, he also created the TV quiz show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”)
Knight is at his best when a movie takes time to look the small ways in which characters interact with the dark things that happen to them. “Serenity” moves a little too fast.
The characters go through heightened film noir motions — everything is booze and dames and murder and money — but then we discover more about Baker’s son, who endlessly stares at a computer screen and taps at a glowing keyboard.
And everything changes. The bigger-than-life characters are forced to emote in a new environment and everything begins to feel outsized and silly.
Not to mention: Once the reveal takes place, it casts a new light on everything. When a good twist works, it expands on a story; this one collapses. The story line makes little sense, and is, in a way, uncomfortably icky.
Knight makes the mistake of trying to foreshadow his big idea early on with odd camera movements and nightmare/dream sequences, but it doesn’t help. And while a little ambiguity might have been nice, “Serenity” finally explains every last detail to the last possible outcome.
Similar twisty films like “Dark City” and “The Village” saved their final zowie moment for the film’s finale, but “Serenity” unfolds its twist too slowly and exposes it too much. If it were a fish, it would have gone belly-up.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Djimon Hounsou, Jason Clarke
Written and directed by: Steven Knight
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes