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Film Reviews Review: Serenity is the ultra-sweaty, intensely ridiculous Matthew McConaughey neo-noir we need

Matthew McConaughey stars in Steven Knight's Serenity.

GRAHAM BARTHOLOMEW/Courtesy of Elevation Films

  • Serenity
  • Written and directed by Steven Knight
  • Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jason Clarke
  • Classification 14A
  • 106 minutes

rating

On the Official Cinematic Ridiculousness Scale (copyright me, 2019), there are three kinds of films: Those that are unintentionally ridiculous, resulting in all sorts of forehead-slapping exasperation (see: Glass); those that are deliberately bonkers, like any number of recent genre bait-and-switches (see: the John Wick franchise); and those that are operating on such a bananas level of delirious extremity that Merriam-Webster has no choice but to convene its editors for an emergency session on defining what, exactly, “ridiculous” means.

It gives me no end of pleasure to announce that the new neo-noir film Serenity fits into this third category. From its intense beginnings to its what-really-c’mon-no-reallllllly-c’mon mid-film twist to its defiantly and successfully sentimental finale, the new Matthew McConaughey vehicle is playing by its own demented rules. When it deigns to care about rules.

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Writer-director Steven Knight opens his film in a completely heightened environment that makes clear his gonzo intentions, if you stop to look at things just carefully enough. It’s the middle of the ocean (we’re not sure which, and this omission is crucial), and McConaughey’s fisherman Baker Dill (that name!) is out with his holy-roller first mate (Djimon Hounsou) and two drunken tourists. Just as his clients are about to reel in a big ol' tuna, the perpetually perspiring Baker takes violent, excitable charge, threatening his clients with a knife so that he, and only he, can capture the fish, apparently a Moby Dick-like obsession for the hero. Eyes flaming, tongue lashing, abs six-packing, McConaughey is totally unleashed here, delivering a hyper-absurd performance that feels entirely of a piece with what’s to come.

This includes, in no particular order: a sex-starved woman (Diane Lane) who pays Baker for both companionship and his unique ability at locating her wandering cat; a travelling salesman (Succession’s Jeremy Strong) so desperate for a few minutes of Baker’s time that he habitually wades through knee-high water in his three-piece suit; a femme fatale (Anne Hathaway) who walks into Baker’s life with Veronica Lake’s hair and a burning desire to have her husband (Jason Clarke) murdered; a preteen computer whiz (Rafael Sayegh) who may or may not be psychically communicating with Baker; and Plymouth, the island of no discernible nationality that they all inhabit.

Plymouth is the kind of end-of-the-line locale where the sugarcane fields are sky-high, the sole bar serves rum by the bottle, everyone knows your alias (but not your legal name), and the radio station employs a DJ who constantly implores his listeners to get out there and “catch that damn fish.” It’s a setting both deliberately sultry and endlessly curious, and every one of Knight’s actors knows how to inhabit its tricky ecosystem just right.

McConaughey, for starters, offers a kicky and knowing alright-alright-alright self-parody, playing Baker as a crayon-sketched trace of his entire career, from Dazed and Confused’s horn-dog Wooderson to True Detective’s paranoid husk Rust Cohle. As a woman whose most definable trait is irresistibility, Hathaway matches her old Interstellar co-star beat for beat, clearly having a better time here than in, say, Ocean’s 8, whose “fun” seems like frivolity-by-committee compared to Serenity’s antics. And Clarke, so used to playing stand-up guys, is a beast when cast as the villain. Amazingly, he also goes drip-to-drip with McConaughey in the film’s best drinking game: Who can sweat the most?

Knight’s résumé is so long and varied that it takes some squinting to see how he arrived at Serenity. He’s written films great (Eastern Promises), good (Dirty Pretty Things) and terrible (Seventh Son). He’s directed one all-timer (Locke) and one Jason Statham movie (Redemption). He co-created Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and the gangster series Peaky Blinders. He is, I suppose, unpredictable. Which makes sense here, in Serenity.

After watching the film’s trailers this past fall, I was convinced that I knew what the film was really about. I am here now to admit that I could have never predicted the actual truth. Nor, I guess, could anyone aside from Knight. And that is ridiculous, in the best possible sense.

Serenity opens Jan. 25.

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