Over the last two weeks, I had been attending the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Throughout the festival, you are constantly hearing about movies that played at the festival. You hear about potential award winners, surprise sleepers, and complete disasters. You also ignore all movies that are released in regular theaters during the festival because they’re either last year roll-over films that we’d already seen or the January garbage that generally comes out.
But this festival was different. At the theater that I worked at throughout the festival, aside from the new movies that we saw daily, there was one movie that had a growing buzz around it the whole festival; Steven Knight’s Serenity, starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. The film was getting critically panned and the big rumor was about the “twist” in the film, which had been the biggest talking point of the film.
I am going to be discussing the “twist” and the effect it had on the film, so if you plan on seeing Serenity, I recommend not reading any further. This will be filled with spoilers.
I guess it would make sense to set up the plot of the film first before diving in. Serenity brings us to the tropical Plymouth Island where broke fishing boat captain Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) takes fishers out for some big-game fishing. Dill himself is after a specifically large tuna that has driven him mad, so much so that in the first scene of the movie, he puts a knife up to a customers throat when he believes he’s finally going to catch the large tuna he calls Justice. Dill spends his evenings drinking and having sex with Constance (Diane Lane) and obsessing over Justice. One evening while at the bar, Dill is visited by his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway). Karen offers Dill $10 million to kill her abusive new husband Frank (Jason Clarke), who also treats Dill’s son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), who lives with Karen and Frank, terribly as well. Dill must decide if the money is worth it to help Karen and his son get out of this abusive situation.
Sounds like a nice little tropical thriller, right? Well that’s how it starts, but that’s not how it ends. Oh no, Serenity is not that simple of a movie. Here’s the deal, I’m just going to drop the twist right now and go on from there, so again, if you plan on seeing Serenity, stop reading now.
(Just gonna put a little Matthew McConaughey here before you continue.)
Are you ready?
Serenity is actually a video game created by Patrick. Dill is actually Patrick’s father, who died in Iraq but who Patrick keeps alive through the game. Karen is Patrick’s actual mother and Frank is his abusive stepfather. Patrick wants to kill Frank and the events of Serenity actually represent Patrick’s thought-process about killing Frank. By the end of the film, Dill agrees to kill Frank on the boat and Patrick decides to kill Frank in real life.
Yes, this is an actual thing that happens in a movie. It was written in a screenplay and two Oscar-winning actors decided to make this movie. And what’s even more insane is that this revelation happens with twenty minutes or so left in the film. For the remainder of the film, I was genuinely questioning whether or not it was real or not. It is and it’s crazy.
After seeing the movie a day ago, I can’t help think about this twist. Yes, it did come out of nowhere. Yes it is bugnuts insane and no film ever would have this twist. But is it actually a bad twist? Before the twist is revealed, the film was kind of flat with some other-worldly performances and a not-so-interesting plot. After it is revealed, though, the movie gains another layer of intrigue that was missing before. You are then thinking about Patrick. You are then thinking about the murder. You are then thinking about the stylistic choices made by writer/director Knight. It changes the who aspect of the film.
First and foremost, this might be one of the best video game movies of all-time. That’s not saying much, as video game movies are genuinely awful, but this is certainly better than Super Mario Bros., and Assassin’s Creed, right? But here’s why this twist in Serenity is so good: it changes everything about the film and gives it a Total Recall effect.
Let’s start with the performances. I read one critic say that, “the performances are cartoonish.” Now, this makes sense at the beginning of the film. The performances are so over-the-top and ridiculous. McConaughey grunts his way around screen, Hathaway feels like she’s the worst femme fetal of all-time and Jason Clarke is just absurd. But here’s the thing, none of it is real. They aren’t real people in this world. They are how Patrick sees them and how Patrick creates them. All of their dialog, emotions, and motivations are created by Patrick. The actors are playing video game characters, not real characters, so their “cartoonish” performances make sense.
Let’s talk stylistically. There are certain choices Knight makes in the film that are incredibly jarring. From the introductions of Karen and Frank to Dill running into the ocean to “shower”, the film uses a lot of quick pans, odd angles, and weird editing throughout the film. But thinking about these moves, especially Dill running into the ocean, they are shots from a video game. Because of the twist, they make sense. They’re weird, but that’s how it’s done in a video game, which this film is.
And then there is the story. There are constant lines of exposition from the towns people and we only see a half dozen people on this entire island, much like a video game. You stay within your level and only interact with the characters in that level until you can move forward. All the tropes, repetition, and cheesy dialog makes sense. Everyone in the town knows everything about anything that goes on in the town, including Karen and Frank’s life, even though they just got onto the island, and Dill’s history. There is also the idea of Dill being broke and having to catch swordfish for money, just so he can get the money to try and catch Justice. That’s just a mini-game to get money. An easy thing you can do to load up your account to get the right tools to complete to level. These small things that might seem meaningless in the movie are actually classic video game bits.
Look, I don’t know if Serenity is actually a good movie. It’s certainly not going to win any Oscars and will probably be out of theaters within the next week. But that twist made this movie completely change. What went from a flat, sandy noir with poor performances becomes an interesting, bizarre video game movie that changes every single aspect you thought you were watching. Again, not sure if it works fully, but it’s definitely one of the most unique filmmaking and writing choices I’ve seen in a long, long time.
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