Every film should tell you what it’s about within the first couple of minutes, and Steven Knight’s “Serenity,” a curious saltwater-sanded puzzle of a film, does just that. The camera dives into the iris of a brown eye and into another world, where a fishing boat traverses turquoise blue waters.
“Serenity” takes place on a bizarre island known as “Plymouth.” The people speak English speckled with French; the landscape is tropical but epic in scope. American money is exchanged, but the cars sport European plates. Churches dot the hills while fishermen pay tribute to the Hindu goddess Kali before their voyages at sea. You may spend much of the film wondering just where in the world they are (the film was shot on the island of Mauritius), but that’s kind of the point. The inexplicable nature of the place belies its origins.
The hero, Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey), is on a mission to catch a fish — a very large tuna he’s dubbed Justice. Every day, he tries to catch the fish, doesn’t, and recalibrates his strategy. Every day, he visits his lover, Constance (Diane Lane), grabs a drink at the local watering hole filled with salty characters, and fires his first mate (Djimon Hounsou). Every day, he gets gossip and news from the bartender and tackle shop owner. Every day, a suited and spectacled salesman (Jeremy Strong) pursues him across the island. So it goes, over and over, Baker dutifully pursuing his quest, until a femme fatale (Anne Hathaway) walks out of his past and into the bar, asking him to kill her husband. Of all the rum joints in all the towns in all the world.
If you haven’t surmised by now, “Serenity” is a game, but who is in control? It could be a complex metaphor for how we deal with fate and personal choices, but that’s not what it’s about. Rather, it’s a thought experiment about the ways in which trauma affects consciousness and the coping mechanism of elaborate fantasies. This particular fantasy relies on simple but effective character tropes culled from film noir, classic literature and other well-known dramatic traditions.
If the characters seem not quite human, it’s because they aren’t. There’s a layer of incongruity and artifice over “Serenity,” but that’s kind of the point. Human complexity is flattened, heightened, confused and rooted in stereotype. Bad guys are exceptionally bad; women are powerless. Some of the more questionable character traits, choices and details (it’s a real stretch to imagine Hathaway and McConaughey are the same age) are explained away when the film’s ultimate, inherently unreliable perspective is revealed. Knight’s a bit too eager to reveal the construct, though — heavy-handed hints eliminate the element of surprise.
In his script, Knight doesn’t finesse the outsize metaphors and symbolism with huge, biblical themes such as “existence” and a “higher power.” He fumbles with the overly mawkish ending, leaving an especially sour taste.
Nevertheless, the off-kilter, colorful, cartoonish fantasy of “Serenity” is just so odd and appealing that you want to spend time with the characters, aboard this ship, among the people of Plymouth in this crazy, upside-down world. Nothing anyone does makes any sense, but that’s the game. Can Baker get to the next level, beat the boss, catch the fish, kiss the girl? Before it all goes downhill, it’s at least fun to watch him try.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: R, for language throughout, sexual content, and some bloody images
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 25 in general release