Serenity (2019)

Directed by Steven Knight

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Serenity might just be bad.  At least if you take it at face value it’s certainly bonkers, however I think there’s something under the surface here about the film noir genre as a whole, it’s construction, absurdity and the degree to which such worlds and characters are almost parodies of our own fears, convictions and resistance to change.

Matthew McConaghey plays a fishing boat captain named Baker Dill.  He’s often shirtless, he’s a bit of a male gigolo, he lives on the tropical but perhaps not so aptly named Plymouth Island, and he has his sights set on his own white whale, a giant tuna he calls Justice.

It’s all so absurd and for a time even a bit boring, but once the thick genre influences give way to total anarchy it becomes something special.  At least I think so, but the movie has gotten some pretty bad reviews, so keep that in mind.

This is how I see it.  The movie is a film noir, or more than that a parody of a film noir.  It takes all these tropes, character types and even the unlikely setting and deconstructs it entirely.  It is certainly not subtle, there’s little in the way of nuance, and yes it does feel a bit like a man in a Godzilla costume stomping over papier-mâché miniature sets.  It’s blunt, a bit delusional and more than a little silly, and that’s why I think I like it.

In the most sincere, straight down the middle film noir genre films there is a male protagonist with a bleak outlook on life who is pulled into some kind of confusing, dangerous plot that gives him hope and then strips it all away from him, meaning he returns to the same frame of mind he had at the beginning of the film.

And while these films are moody and maybe self-indulgently grim, there is something kind of beautiful to all of this.  It starts with a reaction against the chaos of modern life, whatever it is or was at that time.  These are characters who have willfully dug themselves into a hole, buried their head in the sand.  They hide behind tough exteriors, drink themselves to sleep and find work that involves them peering into the ugly interiors of other people’s lives.  Whether they are detectives, private investigators or something else, they find some kind of unconscious meaning in experiencing the “ugly” that they know is already out there.

And yet… they fall in love, almost all the time.  This is where the femme fatale comes in, and she is routinely so obviously up to something that for the jaded, gruff protagonist to fall in love with her, well it’s like admitting that he’s just a moody child.  He finds conviction in claiming that the world is up to no good, but deep down he just wants to be loved too.  He’s almost always far too eager to jump into it with this femme fatale character… and then she does what femmes fatale do, he feels wounded again, and he stuffs his head back in the sand to wait out the rest of his life.

While these films are often over the top, the actors and actresses casually gorgeous, and their minds never far from the spectacle of darkness within our lives, there is something I think deeply human about these yearnings, fears and coping mechanisms.

We are all set in our ways to some degree, and the arc of a noir hero both challenges and confirms all of his (and our) preconceived notions of the world and our place in it.  No matter how the film ends, however, there is usually a scene in which the noir hero bears witness to something that makes no sense whatsoever.  Whether it’s a betrayal or some other convoluted plot mechanization, there’s something that hits him out of the blue, and he must face the fact that the world isn’t exactly as he thinks it is.  And this is challenging, for all of us.

Well that’s what happens in Serenity, only it’s so ludicrous and detached from reality that I think this plot twist only further draws our attention to that moment of crisis.  It’s like the movie was written by a powerful computer that ingested every film noir ever made and combined them into… this.  The fact that this story is so absurd, heightened, melodramatic and confounding, with a twist that seems to make no sense, is I think all the more valid, because all those factors are present in even the best of the noirs.

Where those films may have been influenced by reality or culture as a whole (reacting to post-war conditions or personal tragedies, i.e. the end of Chinatown had a lot to do with the death of Roman Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate), Serenity is based purely on other movies.  It’s self-aware to some extent, though of course the characters all play it straight.

I’ve rambled on long enough, but to sum up the story… we’re set in the world of something like Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, so even the tropical setting, while initially distant from the seedy underworlds of so many noirs, has some basis in past genre movies.  Then you have Baker Dill who has seemingly left behind whatever life he once knew, only for, wait for it, his old life to catch up to him.  It’s his wife, Karen (Anne Hathaway) who shows up asking for him to kill her new, rich husband (Jason Clarke).  She even offers him ten million dollars to do it.

Then halfway through something clicks, in the form of a neat and tidy little businessman who operates under the rules of something like a sci-fi movie, and it turns this film noir into something more closely resembling The Truman Show or Stranger Than Fiction.

It’s a twist which forces you to look at the construction of this world, with characters’ behaviors and attitudes suddenly brought some clarity.  In this way it calls attention to similar constructions of other past films noir.  Why is this character so malevolent or this one so vapid?

The twist also has the effect of, because of who’s really in control, making McConaghey’s character little more than a scared child, and I think this is meant to make us look at past noir characters in the same light.  The degree to which Baker Dill is wounded, and the extent of his obsession with “justice” is little more than the whims of a child.  So maybe the things that drive Jake Gittes or Philip Marlowe and Walter Neff, well maybe they are really just the unconscious impulses of someone who needs to grow up.  At the very least they and their worlds are as separated from reality as the world of Serenity is.

Up Next: Floating Weeds (1959), Gosford Park (2001), John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

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