Home > Film, Reviews > Film Review: Serenity (2019)

Film Review: Serenity (2019)

A Fish Named Justice (2019; Directed by Steven Knight)

Serenity starts out as one kind of movie, pivots quickly but not unexpectedly into another kind of movie, and then eventually u-turns drastically into a third, far worse kind of movie. Considering the weird and unconvincing conceit of its last-act twist (which I am going to spoil a couple of paragraphs down, but to have it given away doesn’t really ruin or even materially affect the rest of the movie, to be honest) and the fact that it stars a mumble-and-growl phase Matthew McConaughey as a slowly-unravelling, morally-conflicted fisherman obsessed (at least at times) with catching a gigantic yellowfin tuna named Justice, Serenity is a surprisingly direct and even boring genre exercise that never meaningfully leaves its lane. A movie more in touch with the potential bad-film camp appeal of its ludicrous ideas would not only have cast a less serious-minded lead actor than McConaughey (the role screams out for pure wild-eyes B-movie Nicolas Cage), it would have gone all in and actually titled itself A Fish Named Justice. Serenity is not that movie, nor is it Joss Whedon’s theatrical-release endcap to his sci-fi series Firefly either, a point of unnecessary confusion that could have been avoided with that better title. A better title that, regardless the contrary decision of the movie’s creators and distributors and marketers, I will be using to refer to this movie for the rest of this review (and plugged into the heading, too; in for a penny, in for a pound).

McConaughey is Baker Dill, a fishing boat captain on an isolated, seemingly-Caribbean island named Plymouth (filming was done on location in Mauritius, an archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean; possibly its stars signed on for the promise of a semi-holiday in the remote tropics). His unexplained fixation on catching his tuna Moby-Dick is costing him his livelihood, especially when he threatens paying big-fish anglers to back off while he mans their rods to catch it. This loose-cannon rogue can’t pay his local mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou), relies on older, wealthy casual lover Constance (Diane Lane) for supplementary financial support, and takes to solo night fishing to afford the gas on his boat and drinking money at the only bar on the island. But then old flame Karen (Anne Hathaway) arrives and offers to sink all of his money troubles to the ocean bottom along with her rich, abusive husband Frank (Jason Clarke), whose murder at sea she offers Dill $10 million in cash to execute.

There’s a personal complication to this film-noir scheme: Karen had a son with Dill back home on the mainland when he was called John Mason, before he went off to war in Iraq and came back shell-shocked and no longer himself (hence the new identity, so we’re to believe). This son, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), is a loner who hides in his room from his stepfather’s violence towards his mother and immerses himself in programming and playing a tropical-island fishing game.

Maybe you can see where this is going? If not, this is where it’s going (to spoilers!): John Mason never came back from Iraq, he died there. The widowed Karen married the abusive bully Frank (Clarke’s well-realized dickbagginess obscures how thoroughly the movie stacks the deck as far as his badness goes), and Patrick uses his IT skills to craft an alternate video-game fantasy open world where his real dad is still alive and fishing like they used to when they were together and happy. Then Patrick reprograms his game to have his parents team up (and also have angry, unloving sex?) to kill his nasty stepdad, while at the same time in the real world, he takes a fishing knife and goes off to kill his stepdad.

A Fish Named Justice is messed the heck up, but never comes anywhere close to realizing it, like a more fun bad movie would. Writer/director Steven Knight, the auteur/creator of the beautifully-made but increasingly strained interwar-set English gangster drama Peaky Blinders, has seen plenty of film-noir thrillers and probably read some Melville too, but he’s maybe only seen a nephew play World of Warcraft once or twice, and so the “it’s all a video game!” twist doesn’t land. Knight uses a camera-rotating move around McConaughey a couple of times in one scene, and introduces Hathaway’s femme fatale Karen with a similar move, which is supposed to telegraph that they’re characters in a video game, one supposes. Locals keep offering Baker Dill better lures and fishing equipment like NPCs in a sword-and-sorcery RPG who provide the player improved gear (does Baker level up by sleeping with Constance, being rude to Duke, and going on benders?). He is also followed around, but never actually met until the night before he plans to murder Frank on the water, by a man in a suit (Jeremy Strong) who claims to want to gift him a fish finder, but is later revealed to be a personification of “the rules” or programming of the game. This coded man and the Plymouth Island locals are constantly, unsubtly prodding Dill back to his prime tuna objective like mission reminder menus. Maybe Knight is a seasoned gamer after all, because his movie is like The Elder Scrolls only even more stultifyingly dull and bloodless.

Of course this all falls to pieces once you think about it for even a moment, but A Fish Named Justice chugs along to its conclusion anyway, powered by a sturdy engine of generic convention. There’s no midnight-showing, so-bad-it’s-good future for this movie, like a real, disastrously awful B-movie like The Room or even like an expensive, misbegotten monstrosity of a flop like the recent Cats, which the leftist, lapsed theatre-kid irony-lovers of social media are working overtime to make into A Thing in that vein. It’s too competently made, for one, and McConaughey, Hathaway, Hounsou, Strong, Lane, and Clarke are all too professional and likable and convincingly sincere to let the proceedings slip into true camp. Top down, everyone believes in this ridiculous nonsense, and they’re mostly too good to let it go really bad. And that’s just no fun, dammit.

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