A seamless zoom shot through a young boy’s eye, a plunge into the deep blue sea, and up across the ocean onto a boat…that’s the very cool opening to Serenity, writer-director Steven Knight’s latest film. It can be described as a 1990’s style noirish, murder-for-hire drama with a contemporary twist, and it features a terrific cast. Unfortunately, all of that somehow adds up to a film that never really clicks. This is Mr. Knight’s first time in the director’s chair since the excellent Locke in 2013. He’s best known for his writing in such projects as “Peaky Blinders,” Eastern Promises, and his Oscar-nominated Dirty Pretty Things. A resume like that lends itself to certain expectations; something that makes the messiness of this one all the more surprising.
Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey stars as Baker Dill, a boat captain who runs a charter fishing business at the edge of the world – a sleepy little remote tropic village called Plymouth Island. We learn pretty quickly that Mr. Dill is a few pickles short of a jar. With customers aboard, he gets the hook in the unicorn he’s been chasing – a giant tuna he’s named Justice. It’s a frantic obsession that the locals call the fish that lives in his head. On a boat named Serenity, Captain Dill’s less appealing side is exposed as he and his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) fail to reel in the mighty fish.
With the significant exception of his money woes, Dill leads a pretty calm life on Plymouth Island. He drinks at the local bar, lives in a makeshift cliff side container by the sea, and enjoys periodic frolicking with Constance, a local beauty played by Diane Lane. We soon learn that Justice the Tuna is just the first of two things that rock the serenity of Dill’s world. The other is his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) who magically appears one night next to the bar stool he is planted on. It turns out she has tracked him down for the sole purpose of paying Dill to kill her abusive and filthy rich husband Frank (Jason Clarke). It’s also during this time that Dill is being chased down by Reid Miller, a nerdy and suspicious little salesman played by Jeremy Strong.
Karen’s plot would stand no chance if not for the son they share. Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) is an odd kid whom we only see writing code at lightning speed from his home computer. It’s the Reid Miller character who clues us in on the twist; but rather than shift the movie into a higher gear, it feels like the air goes shooting out of the proverbial balloon. As shaky as the film, characters, and dialogue were, this twist turns it into a convoluted mess that changes everything we have watched to this point.
Murder for hire/love films have been done many times and in many ways. Some of the best include Hitchcock’s classic Strangers on a Train, Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece Double Indemnity, and Lawrence Kasdan’s steamy Body Heat from 1981. This film should never again be mentioned with those. Although the premise is interesting, this terrific cast certainly deserved better material. Filmed on Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the little scenery we see are the film’s highlights. Apparently, all that Mr. Knight wishes to tell us is that life is a game…and it might not end well. Not exactly breaking news.