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‘Serenity’ Movie Review – Did The Critics Get It Wrong?

‘Serenity’ Movie Review – Did The Critics Get It Wrong?

Here’s a ‘Serenity’ movie review with some alternative ruminations about this 2019 film.

‘Serenity’ (written and directed by Steven Knight in 2019) was almost universally panned by critics. In this ‘Serenity’ movie review, I examine that assessment and other aspects of the film, asking… did the critics get it wrong?

Please read on or play the full video above to hear my analysis of the movie. I explain why I believe ‘Serenity’ is a brave piece of genre film-making. Might it – in the years ahead – come to be seen as a deeply meaningful and meditative entry in the modern film-noir pantheon?

This video’s show notes appear below the full transcript below.

We’re all lost souls, washed up on a lonely beach at the end of the world.

Serenity Movie Review – The Movie Affect

Hello – and welcome to ‘The Movie Affect’. Today, I’ll be talking about Steven Knight’s 2019 movie ‘Serenity’, which tells the story of Baker Dill, a burnt-out fisherman living on an idyllic island, who’s obsessed with catching that one, special fish that just keeps eluding him.

It’s a place ruled by gossip. Everyone seems to know everything about Baker Dill. Our protagonist’s state of mind is called into question early in ‘Serenity’. There are hints given that all may not quite be as it seems.

Have you ever had the feeling that everything around you… might be being orchestrated specifically for you? If so, then ‘Serenity’ might just be a movie that you find very interesting indeed.

So often, I watch films with scenes where one of two things is happening. Either characters are giving important exposition verbally, or action is taking place. Melding those two activities so that they’re both effective in a single scene is quite difficult. And I like the way Steven Knight handles that task in ‘Serenity’.

Take a look also at the [symbolism] that’s used in this film’s composition. This vein of visual storytelling runs deeply through the heart of ‘Serenity’. There’s something very strange going on, on the island of Plymouth. We don’t quite know what it is yet, but Knight’s direction… the tone, the mood, the character interplay that we’re seeing early in the film are all giving us hints to that effect.

Bleary-eyed and existentially lost, witness a performance of uncompromising conviction.

And something striking, I think, about the film early on is that the mood that’s created points to something deeply sad and traumatic, something very melancholy that’s going on at the very heart of this film. Baker Dill – our deeply flawed protagonist here – seems to realise that something’s up, that something’s not quite right. And yet, we still get the feeling that he’s ‘playing along’ with whatever’s happening.

Double-Meaning Adds Subtext

Now another nice element to the writing in ‘Serenity’ is the double-meanings that are at play, in a lot of the dialogue that happens between characters. When the film gives us an initial significance, an initial meaning for a line, and then later – through character exposition, or through visual storytelling – shows us an alternative, sometimes a much more significant, resonant meaning for that line that was spoken earlier on. That, to me, is quality film-making. And it’s something that I wish I saw a lot more of, in films being made today.

Triangle (2009) by Christopher Smith is a related film, thematically and stylistically.

I was reminded more than once when I watched ‘Serenity’ of Christopher Smith’s 2009 film ‘Triangle‘, which you might also find worth a look, a very interesting and unusual movie.

Look at the way this film is constantly playing with our perceptions and what we believe to be our understanding of the film. Look at the way this scene constantly shifts between suggesting that Miller is there… and then not there. He’s there again… and then he’s not there again.

What’s really going on, here? Now, all of this really is preamble and setup for an extended climax sequence in ‘Serenity’ that I think is really quite unique and very, very ambitious. Whether it entirely works from a narrative perspective is, I think, up for debate. But I’ll get to that a little bit later in the episode.

A character asks questions… and the film gives us the answers. Sometimes immediately after the question… sometimes much later in the film… sometimes, even, maybe before the question got asked.

Psychology In Mystery Films

‘Serenity’ a deeply spiritual and meditative piece of film-making. As a psychological story, I would say it’s one of the most audacious pieces of film-making that I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s quite beautiful – Freudian, even. Consider this a modern-day rendition of Freud’s celebrated concept of ‘The Impossible Dream Wish’, which he expounds on so eminently in his celebrated book ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’.

Steven Knight – the writer and director of ‘Serenity’ – also shows, I think, great fluency with the concept of Jungian archetypes, so central to the writing of character in screenwriting. Here is a story about guilt, loss, suffering and regret. It’s the purest of wishes, really, but interestingly told from the point of view of a fantastical protagonist, rather than the author of the fantasy himself. Which is quite an interesting spin, I think, on the concept of The Unreliable Narrator.

This is a modern-day parable which evokes imagery from some of the most celebrated fiction. Think of Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’, Ernest Hemmingway’s ‘The Old Man And The Sea’, and of course countless genre movies and film-noirs from America’s golden era of film-making.

Given all of the above, it’s my opinion that ‘Serenity’ is really quite exceptional and unique piece of modern cinema. It shows tremendous conviction and confidence, I think, on the part of the director and the film-makers. To pull a twist in a movie roughly half-way through (as occurs in ‘Serenity’) that is really so radical and so ambitious, and to see that through right till the end of the film.

‘Serenity’ was savaged by film critics. But why?

Which brings me quite nicely, I think, to the question of this film’s critical reception. As of Spring 2019, the film ‘Serenity’ has been almost universally panned by critics across the board. I read a lot of film reviews, and I must say that it’s rare to come across a piece of work that’s been met with such derision, such hostility, such condescension, even.

So… how did this happen? How could a film that, as I’m suggesting, is a film of such deep psychological insight and significance. How has that been so utterly missed or misunderstood by the film critic’s community? I can think of two main possibilities for how this could have happened.

All Baker Dill really wants… is to rest in peace.

The first is that the journalist’s haven’t really done their job, on this one. Now admittedly does seem have been released in January. It’s the off-awards season, a period of time which is infamous for studios releasing low-key movies that they don’t hold out a lot of hope for – perhaps due to poor test screenings in the weeks prior to its release? And they haven’t put a lot of marketing dollars behind this film. So the release seems to have gone mostly under the radar.

A Film… Not Of Its Time?

Which brings me to the second main possibility behind this film’s poor critical reception, which is that film viewers simply didn’t “get it”. Clearly, a lot of people who have posted analyses of this movie online simply didn’t appreciate what the film was trying to do – or found that it failed.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that the narrative structure of ‘Serenity’ is far from conventional. This is a zany, out-there movie that really goes off at the deep end at some point. It’s about as unusual of a film-viewing experience as you’re likely to see on the silver screen.

Is it perfect? Of course not. I’m not interested in “perfect” movies, to be honest. I’m interested in film-makers who are trying to say something important and interesting, and I definitely think that’s the case with ‘Serenity’. And whether or not it’s a complete success is slightly academic, in my opinion. The fact the film existing and having been made at all is just wonderful, in my view.

Film is a highly subjective, emotional medium. All I know is that every time I rewatch ‘Serenity’, I notice more detail, more subtlety, just more darn beauty, really, in this veritable enigma of a movie.

It’s just a fantastic genre exercise. My least favourite kind of movie is a film which doesn’t know what it wants to be. A film which makes me wonder whether the director knew exactly what they were trying to make. ‘Serenity’, in contrast, is so sure of itself, it’s so clear about where it wants to go, narratively and stylistically, that by the end of it, I was almost cheering in the aisles at the sheer audacity of it all, and the fact that it kind of works exactly as it should.

A Performance Of Great Pathos

But really, this is career-best work from Matthew McConaughey, in my view. How reviewers have chosen to write off his performance as “over-the-top” and “hammy” is simply beyond me. Now admittedly, McConaughey has come off of some great roles, in the last few years.

‘Interstellar’, for me, was mostly a miss in dramatic terms, albeit a very interesting science-fiction story. ‘True Detective’ – another role that McConaughey was lauded for… very stylish and moody. For me, a largely impenetrable piece of work.

Here, McConaughey is firing on all cylinders. Yes, McConaughey’s bleary-eyed, rum-quaffing, cigarette-sucking fisherman is a nuanced, subtle and entirely believable performance, in my view. Early on in the film he really nails it as the, sort of, rather tragic loser-hero, and from that point on, I was totally hooked. I just had to find out what was going on with this guy.

Ignore the nay-sayers: McConaughey excels as the tragic loser-hero in ‘Serenity’ (2019)

Wounded Souls Seek Peace

So, there is another possibility. Maybe I’m just WRONG about ‘Serenity’, right? Maybe this really is just a turkey of a movie, that gets far more wrong than it gets right. That is, of course, a possibility. Perhaps I’ve connected with this film for my own, complicated, deeply-buried psychological reasons. That could very well be. And I’d actually be ok with that.

We’re all wounded souls, in this world, bumbling and feeling our way forward, through an eternal wilderness, really, of broken dreams and slashed hopes. We seek company in the form of humans, animals, minerals, even literary company, to salve our own wounds. To… to make us feel better. To make us feel like… we’re not alone.

Perhaps ‘Serenity’ is simply the balm for my own particular brand of psychic and emotional wounds. I’m gonna go out on a limb here, though. I’m gonna say, here and now, today, that I believe that in the years ahead, ‘Serenity’ will eventually be regarded as modern classic in the pantheon of noir and genre movies.

If I’m right, and the critical opinion of ‘Serenity’ does improve in the years ahead, please remember: you heard it here first, on ‘The Movie Affect’.

Show Notes from this Serenity Movie Review:

Related Films:

Triangle (2009)

The Truman Show (1998)

Related Psychology:

The Interpretation of Dreams – Sigmund Freud

Jungian Archetypes – Carl Gustav Jung

Related Books / Literature:

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

The Old Man And The Sea – Ernest Hemingway

A Descent Into The Maelstrom – Edgar Allen Poe

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