‘Serenity’ Puts Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in Mind-Bending Noir

Serenity” sets up a sultry environment where money and lust combine in one of those classic plots we recognize from trashy pulp. Then the story makes the curious turn that attempts to twist it into something altogether different, making it one of those odd films that goes so off the rails it can’t help but be entertaining. Writer/director Steven Knight combines multiple ideas into one island, literally, but then leaves us wondering what the point was.

Matthew McConaughey plays Baker Dill, a fisherman in a remote island that could be somewhere in the Caribbean. As expected he pounds a lot of rum, sleeps around with his boss, Constance (Diane Lane) and dreams of catching big fish with crewman Duke (Djimon Hounsou). Then, as always happens in these parts of the world, his beautiful ex reappears. She is Karen (Anne Hathaway), long gone but now married into money with a lunatic named Frank (Jason Clarke), who lashes out at her computer-addicted son. Frank is one of those controlling monsters out of “Sleeping with the Enemy,” and to save herself Karen makes Duke an offer: If he kills Frank, there’s a lot of money in store for him.

The best elements of “Serenity” are its production design and casting. Knight has the tools here for a decent noir where rough types lounge around gritty bars, lingering over regrets. Cinematographer Jess Hall delivers some picturesque island shots with a crystalline look, including vast overhead angles to show just how isolated the world of the characters is. The characters feel like people we’ve come across in countless other thrillers. McConaughey is always sweating and has the perfect look for a noir boat captain, eternally drinking and speaking in low, pensive tones. Djimon Hounsou is the loyal comrade who tries to give sound advice against poor decisions (like taking money for murder). Anne Hathaway’s Karen in her wide hats and elegant dresses looks like the perfect incarnation of the noir femme in distress. As required by these kinds of plots, she appears like a dream near the docks and will eventually have steamy sex with Duke inside his boat, acted out with that kind of facial intensity meant to evoke, “we’re doing something wrong.” Knight recently told Entertainment Voice that the idea came to him while traveling and fishing, “I’d had an idea after going on a fishing boat, I like to fish. The captain was great, he did his job until he hooked a fish and became completely obsessed.” Knight has a good ear for rough types, having written films like David Cronenberg’s Russian mafia opus “Eastern Promises.”

Once the evil husband, Frank, appears, we are led to believe we’re in for one of those romps like “U-Turn,” where the tension is focused on whether Baker will axe the jerk, all for the love of Karen (and the money doesn’t hurt as well). Here is where a review of “Serenity” enters tricky waters in not wanting to spoil the film. In this case the twist is what brings down the entire viewing experience. Without getting into the details, Baker slowly starts making a connection between his reality and Karen’s son, who has been left at home, holed up in his room designing a computer game. The story then begins entering a sort of “Twilight Zone” terrain that literally makes everything we are watching turn out to be inconsequential. It’s obvious what Knight is going for here, as he himself has said, “I quite like to cross the genre barriers wherever I can. I think that film tends to produce rules more than any other art form and I like to keep challenging those.” In attempting to defy genre conventions Knight weaves a weird movie that begins as something trashy but entertaining, then spirals into a real head scratcher.

The flaw isn’t in turning the film upside down, but in the way Knight delivers the twist. We are meant to care for these characters only to discover at the end that there was almost no real point in following them as they were presented. “Serenity” becomes the equivalent of receiving a package in the mail, digging through the foam and finding nothing. This is a skillful director with an excellent cast. Knight’s previous film was “Locke,” starring Tom Hardy as a man trapped in a crisis while driving a car. That was a film of controlled tension and striking logic, all within one vehicle. Here Knight sets up an entire world, only to then render it meaningless. In films like “Dark City” big reveals at the end alter our perceptions of everything we witnessed before, but “Serenity” ends in a way where everything we just watched was artificial, like a videogame. The difference between this movie and something in the style of “The Matrix” is that there’s no payoff.

“I wanted to make a movie that I could completely subvert and challenge the nature of the reality we’re looking at,” said Knight. In that sense “Serenity” succeeds, but as an exercise. As a wholly satisfying movie is another question. The first two acts are actually fun in a pulpy, trashy sort of way, and some critics might be being too unfair to the whole enterprise. It’s when the twist takes place that we’re simply left empty-handed, wondering what all the fuss was about.

Serenity” opens Jan. 25 in theaters nationwide.