As a viewer, you might be inclined to think Matthew McConaughey has something up his sleeve in “Serenity,” except that he wears virtually no clothing in the movie, much less sleeves.
McConaughey’s Baker Dill is a fishing tour guide, a haunted war vet and a guy who walks around (or swims in the ocean) naked most of the time. The idea seems to be that he’s guileless and vulnerable, which comes in handy for an ex named Karen (Anne Hathaway), who reaches the island with her abusive tycoon of a husband (Jason Clarke) and asks Baker to please take hubby out fishing, get him tanked up and feed him to the sharks.
Taking its name from Baker’s boat, “Serenity” is an overstuffed movie, with the war stuff, especially, feeling like something that was crammed in to satisfy actors who wouldn’t say yes to the movie without an “important” back story to sink their teeth into. There’s also a “Moby Dick” subplot that finds Baker obsessed with capturing a fish that has eluded him for years. And both Djimon Hounsou and Diane Lane are utterly wasted in bit roles.
What works best in writer/director Steven Knight’s thriller is the modern spin on the classic film noir triangle: a mystery woman, her inconvenient husband and the dupe she hopes will remove the inconvenience.
McConaughey is both a sure fit for a character who spends his life on the ocean — the actor didn’t acquire that tanned, toned torso by playing backgammon in his study — and an uneasy one, with the actor’s sunny persona creating a compelling tension with his character’s haunted nature. I bow to no one in my admiration for what Fred MacMurray does in a similar role in “Double Indemnity,” but MacMurray’s character is an archetype, whereas Baker Dill feels human and flawed. (If you’re like me, you’ll be tortured by that awkward-sounding name, so I’ll save you some stewing and point out it’s an anagram for Bad Killer.)
Initially, Karen seems like less of a central player, but the casting of Hathaway keeps her in our minds, since we know this Oscar winner likely wouldn’t accept a victim/accessory/sidepiece role. Karen is a femme fatale, sure, but the script and Hathaway make a compelling case that behind every femme fatale there’s an homme toxique.
All of this becomes clear in an ending that Knight probably hopes will be one of those all-the-pieces-fall-into-place finales, à la “The Usual Suspects” or “Unbreakable.” It isn’t — there are too many pieces for all of them to fit — but “Serenity” does succeed at reminding us of some classic movie tropes and then stripping them bare.