So, heads up: This long post is full of unmarked spoilers. The story of this film revolves around a big plot twist, so if I had marked it, almost this entire post would be greyed out. So if you want to find out about what will surely be one of the most bizarre plot twists of 2019, read on, if not, click back:
Is there any movie that needs a Spoiler Space more than Serenity? You guys have likely heard that it has a bizarre, ridiculous plot twist. You may have sought out spoilers elsewhere, to find out what the plot twist is. But I assure you, just knowing the twist is the tip of the iceberg for how insane this movie is.
The first half of Serenity is a modern noir, set on the fictional island of Plymouth. Matthew McConaughey is Baker Dill, a fisherman with a mysterious past who makes a living taking tourists out for deep sea fishing. He is obsessed with catching a giant tuna fish names Justice, so obsessed that, when a tourist hooks Justice, Dill pulls out a knife and screams incoherently to grab the guys fishing rod to reel Justice in; this is how the movie starts. Dill has an inexplicably loyal first mate, Duke (Djimon Hounsou) and an older friend with benefits, Constance (Diane Lane) who gives him some cash after they have sex. The plot starts when Dill’s ex-wife, Karen (Anne Hathaway) walks into the island’s only bar, and makes a proposition to Dill: He kills her abusive current husband, Frank Zariakas (Jason Clarke), making it look like a fishing accident, and she gives him $10 million in cash. Dill is less interested in the money than the wellbeing of his son, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh), who retreats into his room all day to avoid Frank’s abuse. Dill is also being pursued around town by Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong), mysterious salesman in a black suit.
So, the big twist: The entire island of Plymouth is actually a video game being played by Patrick. And the game is a fishing simulator. Patrick has modded the fishing simulator to somehow include a noir murder for hire plot, starring characters based on his parents, to act out a fantasy of his dad, who was killed during a tour of duty in Iraq, returning to kill his abusive stepfather.
Lets stop here and really consider this: This seedy, sex and murder noir all takes place in a fishing simulator. I would assume scenes from before Karen shows up, and that don’t directly connect to the murder plotline, are part of the game as it normally. This means it’s a fishing simulator, where the player character is an impulsive and violent semi-alcoholic, and with a “find the cat” minigame where the reward is having sex with the cat owner for cash. What insane game company would release a game like this? It’d be like a golf game with the option to threaten to bash your opponents knees, and then go have sex with country club waitresses. And it is still hilarious that a fishing simulator has been turned into a murder for hire noir. A fishing simulator!
The story mainly focuses on Baker Dill as a fictional replacement for Patricks dead father, but Karen as a stand-in for his mother is where things go really off the rails. Karen is a femme fatale, part victim and part temptress, who Dill regards with a mix of lust and contempt. Frank makes her call him “Daddy” at all times, and I honestly do not want to think about the ‘real’ non-video game implications of why Patrick programmed this. At one point, before the reveal of the big twist, Karen visits Dill on his boat and they reminisce about their past relationship, specifically Dill taking Karens’ virginity. They then have loveless sex, and Dill declares that he will kill Frank, not out of affection for Karen, but to protect Patrick. What kind of Oedipal nonsense is this? Also, Dill has sex with his pants on, just zipper down.
Dill also has some sort of spiritual connection to Patrick in the real world. Karen says that Patrick can hear Dill through the computer–Karen does not know that they are in a video game, so I guess she thinks they have some sort of psychic bond?–and Dill and Patrick are able to somehow sense each other when Dill goes naked cliff diving and Patrick spills his water on his desk. Dill also somehow has memories of his own death, and I have no idea why Patrick would program that in.
Aside from how weird this plot is, the fundamental problem is that the film never really reorients itself after the reveal. Dill finds out that he is character in a game–that his previous obsession with catching a giant tuna was because it was a fishing game, and is being replaced by a similar obsession with killing Frank as Patrick mods it–and he mainly gets drunk, before setting out to kill Frank. He just encounters a few more obstacles. All we see of the real world is the inside of Patricks’ bedroom, as he plays the game, and the sounds of Frank abusing Karen in the next room. It’s implied that Dill killing Frank is what will embolden Patrick to use his fathers’ knife to defend his mother, but Patrick is the one who has made the decision for Dill, so it’s really just Patrick finishing his game before killing his stepfather.
The twist is like Atonement by way of The Matrix, but the movie doesn’t really delve into what made of either of those films work. The theme of fiction as fantasy/projection worked in Atonement because it connected to the arc of a main character. Patrick is a total cipher–the only thing we really learn about him is that he misses his dad, which makes all the other weird flourishes and character beats all the more inexplicable and pointless (why does he imagine his dad in such dire straits? And seriously, what is up with everything with his mom?) and the film never really explores the terror of finding out your life is a game (a fishing simulator!) or does anything with the concept of reality itself being a program conspiring against Dill.
Serenity is a film about video games, made by people who appear to only know video games from youtube playthroughs. The first half captures the weird secondhand nature of video game exposition–plot points relayed through gossip; at one point, a shop owner tells Dill about an incident between Karen and Frank that happened while they were alone in a hotel room and specifically says they were too quiet for anybody else to hear–and the camera mimics the swoosh of changing camera angles in a video game, but nothing about the story really makes sense as events in a game (or, more specifically, a fishing simulator). It is themes–fiction as construct or comfort–in search of a story.