‘Serenity’ swallowed by its distributor over big dumb twist

Images courtesy Aviron Pictures, whether they want to admit it or not.

2/10 After acquiring the distribution rights to Serenity in February 2018, Aviron Pictures set a Sept. 28 release date, where it would have competed against nothing even vaguely memorable, and later pushed that back to Oct. 19, where it would have an early Oscar season date against Halloween.

Then, suddenly, Aviron pushed it all the way back to Jan. 25 and didn’t tell anyone. Marketing completely stopped – to be aware that Serenity was coming out, you would have had to already have seen trailers in anticipation of the Oct. 19 release, be the kind of person who actually pays attention to movie news and be the kind of person who goes to see movies that the studio clearly doesn’t believe in.

Aviron waited until the first big movie of the year, Glass, came out a weekend beforehand, and only then quietly slid Serenity onto screens. What’s behind the curtain that’s so bad that early January wasn’t a deep enough hole to hide it in? Anyone who’s seen Serenity, whether they hated it or even if they liked it, can easily tell you.

On the remote Plymouth Island, Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), an Iraq War veteran who never really came back, works as a fishing tour guide. He takes paying customers out to open ocean on his boat, the Serenity, baits and sets several fishing lines and then lets the customer reel in anything that bites and pretend like they know how to fish. Dill has become obsessed with a 400 pound tuna he has named “Justice,” to the point that it’s getting in the way of his work.

Plymouth Island is a very, very small town, small to the point that instead of going “out,” you go to the town’s lone bar, and instead of “finding a therapist” you “go to see Dr. Bob.” Everyone knows everyone, everyone knows everyone’s routines and everyone knows everything that’s going through your head, to an extent that at first seems extreme and becomes completely impossible. In this setting, where secrets spread seemingly of their own accord, Dill is visited by his ex-wife, Karen Zariakas (Anne Hathaway). Zariakas tells Dill that her new husband Frank (Jason Clarke) regularly abuses both her and Patrick, Dill’s son with her from their marriage, and offers Dill $10 million to take Frank out on his fishing boat and kill him.

Serenity is completely crippled by poor editing decisions, most noticeably on the macro level, but also on the micro level. Many of the scenes are edited bizarrely, and it gives off the impression that writer/director/producer Steven Knight just didn’t get the shots he needed to make several scenes work properly. But the biggest problem, and Serenity’s most memorable element, is the big dumb twist at the midpoint, which isn’t just dumb, but eclipses some wonderful performances and takes away from a story that it doesn’t even fit into.

A week after the film’s release, the obvious was confirmed – Aviron Pictures deliberately swallowed Serenity, going back on their promise to provide marketing commensurate with a 2,500 theater release and canceling the press junket, reportedly waiting until the night before McConaughey and Hathaway were set to leave for Los Angeles to tell them it wasn’t happening. The company did this after repeated failures with test audiences indicated they wouldn’t be able to pull in an adult audience, for which word-of-mouth is critical, and decided a marketing campaign would be a waste of money.

There are several references to alcoholism in Serenity. Dill and Frank both drink well beyond excess, and “Dr. Bob” is how Alcoholics Anonymous members refer to founder Bob Smith. Serenity itself is a reference to the Serenity Prayer.

It’s immediately obvious why test audiences rejected it – the big dumb twist is just too dumb to handle – and why nobody could save the film by editing around it. The twist is buried in the film like a tick, with what feels like half the runtime dedicated to foreshadowing it and expositing on how it all works. This was obviously a passion project from Knight, just given his list of roles, and I highly doubt he would have allowed anyone to put together a version of Serenity without his twist in it.

You have to wonder several things about Knight. What’s his relationship like with his father? How does he feel about video games? With the press junket cancelled, he’ll likely never field questions about this movie. We can know is that several of his other movies, such as Eastern Promises and Locke, do feature ethically compromised father figures, but that’s too common to really be a defining trait of a body of work.

The trouble with the twist isn’t just that it’s dumb, it’s that it doesn’t add anything to the story. It doesn’t change or even relate to Dill’s conflict, and only serves to make Serenity’s subtext explicit. The implication is that the story isn’t even about Dill, it’s about his son Patrick and his decisions – but as viewers, we’re only allowed to engage with Dill, so the movie would become a whole lot stronger if it would just get rid of what isn’t working and stay in its lane as pure metaphor. Many of its most paranoid elements would work wonderfully as metaphor, but are absolute nonsense when made literal.

Even after you get rid of the big dumb twist, there are entire characters, like Dill’s first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) and his fuck buddy Constance (Diane Lane) who don’t have anything to do. If you really whittled Serenity down only to its briny noir plot, stripped of all its unnecessary elements, you’d have a 40 minute movie.

Because of how the marketing was handled, the only people who would ever see this movie are people who would have already been excited for it based on trailers that hadn’t aired since August, and the movie we were excited for would have been spectacular. Serenity was pitched to McConaughey and Hathaway as a “sexy noir thriller,” and that’s how it was pitched to viewers as well-

It looks like a morally turbulent island noir with a great cast and intense surrealist elements about small-town paranoia, taking the standard “kill my husband” femme fatale plot and cutting it with the unique city-wide stir-craziness of being isolated in the same place for far too long.

If you cut out everything about the big damn twist, Serenity is every inch the movie you’d want it to be based on this trailer. Nobody does femme fatale in 2019 quite like Anne Hathaway, and Clarke has a blast as the grotesque, completely irredeemable Frank. The fact that everyone seems to know exactly the choice Dill is faced with externalizes his guilt and internal conflict while also intensifying his paranoia, which is already established in his PTSD and alcohol abuse.

In a way, the complete marketing halt does a better job of cultivating the atmosphere Serenity is going for than the movie itself. Dill learns something he isn’t supposed to know and begins to look directly at things he isn’t supposed to see, and as big and dumb as the twist is, as a viewer of Serenity, you’re a lot like Dill yourself.

You know this movie exists – you’ve seen the trailers for it, it looked good, but they oddly stopped running. The date it was supposed to release came and quietly went. You eventually learn about a new release date, but there’s still no fanfare. More and more, you realize you’re watching something that top-level executives don’t want you to see. As the movie gets more intense and, eventually, much sillier, you look around the empty arena and begin to wonder if the movie really does exist, if anyone else will ever be privy to what you’re seeing. You’ll get home and find that other people obviously did see the movie and they’re talking about it at length, but that feeling that Serenity is some private glance behind the curtain, made and released just for you, lingers.

As much as I’m trying to like this movie, it’s pretty telling that the deliberately botched marketing campaign ends up being the best thing about it.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook,  follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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