'Serenity' got panned, but it's exactly the kind of movie we need right now
Spoiler alert: Contains a discussion of plot points from "Locke" (2014), "Redemption" (2013) and "Serenity" (2019).
Steven Knight's latest film, "Serenity," has been treated as a punch line thanks to the audaciousness of its mid-movie twist. We'll discuss that in a moment. First, though, allow me to suggest that "Serenity" is merely the logical continuation of Knight's work as a filmmaker concerned with the foundations of our morality.
"Redemption" was the first suggestion that Knight might be up to something a bit different than his contemporaries. Nominally a Jason Statham-starring action flick of the sort that have flooded multiplexes since "The Transporter," "Redemption" was instead a meditation on what we must do to earn forgiveness -- from ourselves, from our fellow men.
Statham starred as Joey, a homeless vet on the run from the law following his commission of a war crime in Afghanistan. After breaking into an apartment bereft of its owner for the summer, Joey pulls himself together: He ditches the booze, gets back in shape and gets work in a kitchen before taking a job as the driver for a Chinese mobster. The new job brings more money but also more moral peril; there are only so many pizzas he can buy nun/soup kitchen operator Cristina (Agata Buzek) to make up for the fact that he's driving around killers, dope pushers and pimps.
Joey's quest for absolution -- summed up in a question to Cristina as he prepares his return to the streets: "Do I look like a good man?" -- is imperfect. The modest good he hopes to do (find and punish the man who killed a friend forced into prostitution; provide financial assistance for his abandoned wife and daughter) is far outweighed by the evils he enables in his quest for redemption. Knight drives home Joey's disassociation from the criminality of his newfound Chinese friends by placing their actions just off-screen: We hear screams and whimpers but rarely see the damage done. Joey's return to the gutter at film's end feels fitting, the title of the movie a lie. There is no redemption for Joey, not really.
While "Redemption" is a bit messy in its message, "Locke" couldn't be clearer. Knight's masterpiece, set entirely in a moving car, focuses on two hours or so in the life of Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), a construction expert who finds himself in a bit of a pickle. The biggest concrete pour in European history is about to take place, but he can't be there to oversee it: He must go to a hospital where a one-night-stand is giving birth to his baby. He does so understanding it is likely to cost him his job and his family. But he must. Locke's father was absent, and he knows the sort of pain that absence causes.
Knight is not subtle about the metaphors he's working with in "Locke." The concrete pour is more than the foundation of a skyscraper: It's an allusion to Ivan's very life.
"If the concrete at the base of my building is not right, if it slips a half-inch, cracks appear. If cracks appear, they will grow and grow and the whole thing will collapse," Locke tells the man he has put in charge of the job in his absence. "You make one mistake, Donal. One, little f-ing mistake, and the world comes down around you." The crack in Locke's own foundation was his absentee father, an invisible ghost with whom he spars as he drives toward the new life he is responsible for, the blank slate he must give the best chance to succeed.
"Locke" is one of the best films I've ever seen about the difficulty of morality, the internal struggle one must undertake to do what's right and responsible. "Serenity," meanwhile, is a fascinating portrait of the internal struggle one reckons with when moral calculi shift.
"Serenity" has been sold as a sultry neo-noir reteaming of Oscar-winning Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway for the first time since "Interstellar." Trailers promised a film about island bum Baker Dill (McConaughey) being asked by ex-wife Karen (Hathaway) to kill her new, abusive husband (Jason Clarke). And "Serenity" is that ... kind of.
More precisely, "Serenity" is a movie about a boy who programs a video game that resurrects his dead father on a desert island in order to escape the reality he inhabits -- one in which his mother is regularly beaten by her new beau -- and then alter that reality entirely. It is, again, not a subtle piece of filmmaking from Knight: The boy is shown mucking about with the game's code, and a character within the game who identifies himself as "The Rules" explains to Baker that whereas previously murder was impossible on the island they inhabit, the game's object has changed. The rules no longer apply as they once did.
Baker's son is literally altering his moral code, juggling the ethical cost of killing the man who injures his mother. A bright-line moral rule -- thou shalt not kill -- becomes a bit murkier when it comes into conflict with the need to protect family and the urge to punish evil.
I understand why some have reacted so strongly against "Serenity"; the mid-film twist is certainly a curveball, and there's little audiences hate more than being surprised, their protestations about trailers that reveal everything in a movie notwithstanding. But it's an earnest effort at examining morality through the lens of art, a timely reminder of the power that artists have to help us understand the choices we face in life. Would that we were thrown more such off-speed pitches by Hollywood.