Entertainment

The Twist in Matthew McConaughey's Thriller 'Serenity' Is Mind-Blowingly Weird

serenity movie
Aviron Pictures

This story contains spoilers for Serenity and discusses the ending in detail. 

At first, the strangest aspect of the crime thriller Serenity is that the film's protagonist, a fisherman named Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), spends his days obsessing over a tuna he's dubbed "Justice." He lives on a vaguely tropical island with a handful of oddball locals and "one cop in town," but plenty of fish in the sea. The film's script, which was penned by its director, Steven Knight (the Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind the Tom Hardy car showpiece Locke and the Tom Hardy top-hat series Taboo), is filled with dialogue about tuna. If you love tuna, seek this out.

The emphasis on aquatic life isn't exactly highlighted in the film's steamy marketing campaign, which goes to great lengths to sell the movie as a twist-filled take on Body Heat, with Anne Hathaway playing the mysterious femme fatale. And, at least for the first hour or so, that's what Serenity is. Dill's ex-wife Karen (Hathaway) disrupts his idyllic Beach Bum-esque life of drinking and fishing by arriving with her repugnant, abusive new husband Frank (Jason Clarke). She offers Dill $10 million cash to murder her loathsome hubby at sea, and Dill, an ex-soldier with a broken moral compass, is tempted. So far, so noir-y.

But, even from the start, it's clear that Knight is up to something a bit more high-concept than an old-school genre tribute. In between the Jimmy Buffett mystery plot, we keep learning about Dill's son Patrick, a prodigy who hides from his tyrannical step-father by typing away at the computer in his room. Also, a nebbish businessman played by Succession stand-out Jeremy Strong keeps making futile attempts to contact Dill with a message of some sort. A writer with a tendency to double-underline his themes, Knight doesn't place these plot elements in the background or fit them snugly into his pastiche. They're buzzing in your face like flies for most of the movie's opening stretch.

Thanks to McConaughey's bronzed lunkhead charisma, Hathaway's willingness to lean into her character's slippery contradictions, and some truly outlandish visual choices -- we get a couple Matrix-like camera swoops -- Serenity has a sleazy, lurid pull to it. The setup has a simplicity to it that feels jarring and refreshing, like a shot of whiskey in contrast to the craft cocktails offered up by prestige TV shows. However, the low-concept appeal of the premise is itself part of the movie's con: Once the puzzle pieces fall into place, when you figure out what the son and the business man are up to, you realize you've been watching another high-concept meta-movie about "the nature of storytelling" the whole time.

So, what is the actual twist? Is Baker Dill living in purgatory? A dream-like dimension? An episode of the Twilight Zone? No, not exactly. As Strong's businessman painstakingly explains in the movie's most baffling sequence, where he gulps down booze and presents Dill with a fish tracker from his private fishing company, he is, in fact, "the rules." The rules of what exactly? A video game being coded (and presumably played?) by Dill's brilliant gamer son, who uses it as a therapeutic escape from his violent home life. This revelation sends Dill into a Truman Show-worthy existential crisis about the nature of reality, identity, and free will. He's trapped in the game and there's no escape. 

serenity movie
Graham Bartholomew/Aviron Pictures

Besides the ludicrous way the mystery is unraveled, here's the most significant problem with Serenity's big gamer twist: Knight does not seem curious about any of the specifics of video games as a narrative form. He doesn't need to pepper the script with Fortnite or Twitch references, but a little effort would go a long way. The game this child has designed would be repetitive to play -- most of the tasks would involve fishing, drinking, and occasionally having sex with a woman in town played by Diane Lane -- and it's primarily inspired by a set of tropes and cultural objects that would likely have no appeal to a modern teenager. (Presumably, Dill's son loves Hemingway and Double Indemnity.) The video game element is just a gimmick.

It didn't have to be this way. With varying degrees of success, movies like the Tom Cruise shoot-em-up Edge of Tomorrow and Steven Spielberg's rollercoaster Ready Player One have prodded at some of the tricky questions posed by open-world gameplay. Serenity's ending, where it's revealed that Dill died in Iraq and his shut-in son gains the confidence to kill his abusive step-father IRL by killing him via Dill in the video game, could be seen as an alarmist warning about violent games. But the execution is so baffling and awash in New Age platitudes that it doesn't even register as disturbing or finger-wagging. The entire second half of the movie feels like a hallucinatory glitch. If it were a game, you wouldn't even bother to remove the cartridge and blow on it to make it work.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.