Go catch that fish, Dill.
I was rooting for Steven Knight‘s Serenity long before sitting down at the theater. Why wouldn’t I? The trailer had it looking like one of my favorite types of films—namely the sort wherein what we see and experience ultimately proves to be the inner-workings of a troubled, delusional mind. I clung to this belief that there would be more than meets the eye even tighter upon hearing how stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway got angry at Aviron Pictures for canceling their planned press tour due to the same poor test scores that forced them to push its theatrical release from September 2018 to January 2019. The signs pointed towards it being a mess and yet the chance that it might be an unsung masterpiece remained nonetheless.
And then my hopes were realized when the opening sequence saw the camera approaching an unknown boy’s face before entering his eyeball and exiting a ocean of water like we were the giant bird flying above Baker Dill’s (McConaughey) fishing boat. Who then was this man crazed enough to pull a knife on paying customers so he could get his shot at catching the biggest tuna anyone on Plymouth Island had ever seen? Was he the boy grown up? Maybe he was a manifestation of rage and obsession or perhaps some kind of psychological protector created as a means to provide strength where none resided in reality. With limitless options and enough intrigue to satisfy my patience until Knight chose to reveal his cards, I excitedly settled in.
Then things got even wilder as dreams seemed to dissolve the façade separating these two characters (Rafael Sayegh‘s Patrick is the boy). Suddenly it was as though they could see what each other was doing and perhaps physically switch places if the pool of water both find under their fingertips after one such jolt of consciousness is any indication. Yeah I saw the tipped over water bottle on Patrick’s desk, but literal explanations aren’t always “truth.” So the connection was real and surprisingly transparent in a way that made me think Knight was going outside the box on this theme by providing his twist early enough to expand on the ramifications of comprehension’s aftermath. The film’s mysteries (inside and itself) were officially colliding with answers soon to follow.
Here’s the crux of that internal narrative: this giant tuna is Baker Dill’s white whale and he’ll do anything to catch it. Everyone in town is all for the stories he tells of close-calls because they really don’t have any other form of captivating drama to sustain them. So Duke (Djimon Hounsou) continues serving as his first mate despite Baker’s steady decline since maybe he can keep him on track to at least get paid and afford the next day’s gas. And if that doesn’t pan out? Well, Baker can always visit Constance (Diane Lane) for a sexual tryst, pimping himself out to her sugar mama to tide himself over. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship without strings attached, the reason for keeping her at arm’s length arriving shortly.
Karen Zariakas (Hathaway) is she, a woman from Baker’s past who’s come to proposition him. Her ask is that he takes her brutish husband Frank (Jason Clarke) on an expedition, dropping him in the water to never be seen again. While she offers ten million dollars and a worthwhile plea to literally save her and her son from Frank’s abuse, Baker declines. He’s left killing behind after the war in Iraq and knows even thinking about murder would reignite the darkness that he’s tried so hard to escape. But good people sometimes have to do bad things. Sometimes you have to see that the ends will justify the means and that heroism is never packaged with a bow. Will Baker return with fisherman and fish or just himself?
This conundrum is tragically where it all falls off the rails, though. Because what is this choice predicated upon? Is Baker or Patrick in control? And if it’s the latter, what is this hard-boiled homicide plot standing in for in the real world? It unfortunately seems Knight believed the “coolness” factor of his premise would overshadow his inability to render it authentically since it’s revealed that the plot is literally standing in for itself. How is that possible? Well, Patrick isn’t imagining Baker’s world as much as creating it. He’s living with an abusive father beating his mother in the room next door while he tries to disappear into fantasy via a videogame he’s coded to present himself with an option of making the torture stop.
If Serenity was a science fiction film, this might have worked. Within that genre Knight could have made Baker an avatar with which Patrick could play. But that’s not what he presents. He could have also created some bridge wherein Patrick’s parents entered the game and thus everything that happened to them there would also be true in reality. But Knight doesn’t do that either. No, he decides to toe the line between these alternatives instead. One foot dips into the former and another into the latter until neither can work. Why? Because he never says that Patrick has created an artificial intelligence. The movie actually confirms the exact opposite by letting Baker acknowledge he’s as in the dark with this world as the other non-playable characters surrounding him.
What then do we have? A young boy dealing with emotional trauma inside a film that puts the knife in his hand and says, “Go for it.” while a videogame plays in the background with no bearing on his actions. If Baker isn’t “real,” his telling the boy that murdering his stepfather is okay is just the boy telling himself. But then Knight suddenly wants us to pretend Baker is real by allowing his plot to continue after the fact and thus have the videogame be more than simply a coping mechanism. Why’s that problematic? How about the optics of a child writing a game wherein the villain assaults his virtual mother before the protagonist (the boy in this scenario) has sex with her. Yup. Not so great.
It’s too bad because the production value is very good. McConaughey is great as the sole player who’s conscious of his fabrication (besides the equally good Jeremy Strong as an embattled businessman-type whose clarity comes from a different direction). He’s therefore allowed to have emotion even if it does him no good (until the film reverses one problematic premise for another). Clarke, Lane, and especially Hathaway therefore have reason for playing their roles to archetypical extremes. It’s still bad since sexy demure Karen is really sexy demure Mom, but that’s not Anne’s fault. Knight merely thought he could do “Westworld” without dealing with the inherent logistics of “Westworld”. Half the issues disappear if Baker isn’t important to Patrick (I’ll avoid that spoiler), but half would sadly still remain.
 Karen (Anne Hathaway) brings turbulent tides to Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) as his past resurfaces in SERENITY. Photo credit: Graham Bartholomew / Aviron Pictures
 (L to R) Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), Frank (Jason Clarke) & Duke (Djimon Hounsou) fish for big game on a dangerous excursion in SERENITY. Photo credit: Graham Bartholomew / Aviron Pictures
  Karen (Anne Hathaway) brings turbulent tides to Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) as his past resurfaces in SERENITY. Photo credit: Graham Bartholomew / Aviron Pictures