Baker Dill (played by Matthew McConaughey) is one of the most pungent movie heroes in recent memory. Just a glance at him summons the scent of salt, given that there are clearly grains of it in his every pore. A grizzled sailor living on a mysterious island, Baker takes tourists out to fish every day, and while his skin has the pallor and consistency of cured cod meat, his true obsession is tuna—specifically, one monstrously large tuna that he’s been hunting for a long time. One of the tourists inquires as to this special fish’s name, as Baker wrestles with it on the line. McConaughey peers over the side of his boat, which is called the Serenity, and rasps an answer in his very particular, memorable Texan drawl: “Justice.”
Just what is going on in Serenity, the writer-director Steven Knight’s extremely peculiar romantic thriller that is laden with Oscar nominees and winners but is opening in the cinematic doldrums of January? I can’t tell you everything—this is a film in which plot really does matter, and the less you know going in about specific twists and turns, the better. But I can try to underline just how baffling this film is from minute one, long before it springs any major surprises on the viewer. It’s one of those projects that initially seems hokey beyond repair but quickly evolves into something genuinely unique. Serenity may not make it onto many critics’ top-10 lists come the end of 2019. But it’s certain to be one of the more unforgettable viewing experiences of the year.
Baker Dill lives in Plymouth, a town that recalls the swampy Florida Keys but feels even more isolated from society. He’s on the run from his past, suffering post-traumatic stress from service in an unnamed war and drinking all night at the local watering hole. He dwells in a refurbished shipping container, dreaming of that furtive tuna named Justice, and occasionally romances the local doyenne Constance (Diane Lane), who in return gives him a few bucks if he’s ever hard up for cash. His life is a metronome, repeating the same hard-boiled tasks with little success, a colorful update of classic seaside mysteries such as Key Largo.
The final piece in the noir jigsaw is Karen (Anne Hathaway), an old flame from Baker’s past, who rolls into town with her abusive, rich husband, Frank (Jason Clarke), and a provocative proposition. If Baker takes Frank out fishing, pushes him overboard, and leaves him to die, she’ll give him $10 million, no questions asked. Will he do it? Is she on the level? Are Baker and Karen still in love? These are some of the questions Serenity asks, but there’s a strange stiltedness to how the movie unfolds. A mostly clothed sex scene between Baker and Karen during a midnight rainstorm is particularly laughable, as if the film were a dime-store romance novel come to life.
Knight is, in fact, a very accomplished screenwriter. Oscar-nominated for his Dirty Pretty Things script in 2004, he’s contributed to gritty, satisfying adult dramas such as Eastern Promises and Allied. His last directorial effort, 2013’s Locke, was a form-busting gem, set entirely in a car as a stressed-out man (played by Tom Hardy) tries to navigate a personal crisis and a work crisis, all in a series of phone calls. Compared with that, Serenity initially seems like a major step back, an incredibly derivative thriller that pushes its talented ensemble into giving stereotypical, one-note performances. McConaughey is haunted, Hathaway is icy, and Clarke is comically cruel, barking insults at everyone around him while waving money in their face.
Then, at around the film’s halfway point, Knight upends everything and Serenity’s story veers into entirely different waters. The twist, which involves a nervous-accountant character played by Jeremy Strong who is inexplicably running around the island, helps excuse some of the most egregious plot formulas Knight deploys. It catapults every performance into ludicrous new directions, particularly that of McConaughey, whose character spends much of the second half of the movie screaming wordlessly into the sky, Nicolas Cage–style. It’s the kind of development that’s impossible to predict because it’s just too silly to ever seriously consider.
Yet the twist just about won me over to Serenity, which is officially the daftest movie of 2019, a title I’d wager on it keeping for the entire year. I won’t say much about the film’s climax, but it hinges just about everything—the fate of the whole world—on Baker’s struggle between catching the tuna and throwing Frank overboard. I couldn’t possibly spoil what he decides to do, but even if I did, it wouldn’t come close to explaining what ends up happening in this giddily preposterous potboiler. If you find yourself with a spare couple of hours in the next few weeks, hitch a ride on the Serenity and see what you find. I can promise you this: It won’t be tuna.