April 2, 2020

In Defense of "Serenity"

“If there’s anything that you might already know about the new Matthew McConaughey movie Serenity, it’s that it contains a big twist. And if there’s anything you know about the big critics’ reviews, it’s that they are negative and full of spoilers. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody wrote in his pan that “[t]here’s almost nothing of consequence to discuss in Serenity that isn’t a spoiler, but there’s almost nothing in it that’s not spoiled in advance.” But if you like seeing authentically unusual movies, then ignore the haters: In its fusion of disparate genres, its sentimentality, and its weirdness, Serenity is actually worth watching. For a spoiler-free appreciation of this strange chunk of cinema, read on. I bet you can’t guess the twist.

We begin with the flash of a fin underwater. Though at first it seems like this fish is a bit of scenery, it actually turns out to be a central character in the movie. Our rugged hero Baker Dill (McConaughey) is a fisherman living on the Floridian island of Plymouth, and he’s obsessed with a tuna named Justice. He spars with his friend Duke (Djimon Hounsou) and everybody else in town who thinks he’s crazy. “I fish tuna,” Baker says. “You fish one tuna, man,” the villager replies. “And that’s the tuna in your head.”

Beneath the ripple of McConaughey’s muscle and the bright sunshine that plays on the water, the ghost of Hemingway stirs. Perhaps his most famous story, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea told of an elderly Cuban fisherman who, much like Baker Dill, hunts an elusive marlin in the Gulf Stream. In that story, the fisherman battles as much with fate as with the fish. Like Baker, he confronts the sea’s unknowability and frames its mystery in gendered terms: “The old man always thought of [the sea] as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.” According to Baker, the best way to catch tuna is by moonlight.”

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