Shortly after the publication of his short story “The Vane Sisters” – in which a plot twist is revealed through a hidden acrostic message in the final paragraph – Vladimir Nabokov quipped that the narrative trick he employed was something that “can only be tried once in a thousand years of fiction.” Perhaps we’ll need to call for a similar moratorium, albeit for entirely different reasons, on the type of twist that powers Steven Knight’s soggy, island-bound noir “Serenity.” Distinguished only by its starry cast and cinematographer Jess Hall’s beautiful lensing of some idyllic Mauritius locations, “Serenity” sees a usually reliable screenwriter-turned-director take a bold swing and miss the mark completely, so intent on pulling the rug out from under you that he never notices you weren’t even standing on it.
Though its trailer telegraphs a deeper mystery at play, the film’s ostensible plot couldn’t be simpler, inserting a Captain Ahab-type into a Hitchcockian murder scheme. Matthew McConaughey plays Baker Dill, a salty Iraq veteran-turned-fisherman struggling to make ends meet on a tiny tropical isle. He has a sturdy boat, a loyal first mate (Djimon Hounsou) and a steady supply of well-heeled tourists to take out on deep-sea fishing expeditions. But he’s become so obsessed with catching a massive, elusive tuna nicknamed “the beast” that he’s barely making enough money for gas, forced instead to take handouts from his lonely paramour, Constance (Diane Lane). (In an exchange typical of the film, Constance teasingly calls Baker “a hooker” as she hands him a wad of post-coital cash, to which Baker responds, “a hooker who can’t afford hooks.”)
Complications arise when Baker gets a visit from Karen (Anne Hathaway, vamping it up as a smoky-eyed femme fatale), his childhood sweetheart with whom he once fathered a child. Karen has since married into money via a comically loathsome sadist with underworld connections named Frank (Jason Clarke), and she makes Baker a desperate offer: Take Frank out on a fishing trip during their weekend getaway, ply him with booze and toss him to the sharks, and she’ll pay him $10 million in cash for his trouble.
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Baker ponders the proposition in between frequent trips to the isle’s lone bar and a few bouts of nude cliff diving. He initially turns her down, but he’s tempted by the possibility of leaving the island with its endlessly nosy locals, and he’s also haunted by memories of his son, whom he envisions in gauzy flashbacks while chugging rotgut rum out of a “World’s Greatest Dad” mug. More strangely, he’s also being relentlessly pursued all around town, “Better Off Dead”-style, by a mysterious, deeply ridiculous travelling salesman in a tight-fitting suit (Jeremy Strong).
Knowing Knight’s formidable resume as a writer (“Dirty Pretty Things,” “Eastern Promises”) and a director (2013’s masterfully resourceful Tom Hardy vehicle “Locke”), it’s initially puzzling to watch him wallow in such broad, clichéd character types, stilted dialogue, and showy stylistic flourishes here. As the film starts to show its hand, however, it becomes clear that this is all by design, building to a revelation that recontextualizes everything that’s come before. If you squint just right, you can see the deeper themes that Knight is toying with – questions of free will, and of the consolations of fiction – but never does he hit the intellectual or emotional pressure points that would make the whole ordeal worthwhile. As somber as it is unintentionally silly, “Serenity” doesn’t have a prayer.