Serenity review: A sweaty collection of neo-noir tropes, with one of the most seismically stupid twists in cinematic history

Dir: Steven Knight; Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Djimon Hounsou, Jason Clarke, Diane Lane. Cert 15, 106 mins

In Serenity, Matthew McConaughey plays a fisherman on the trail of a tuna called “Justice”. As metaphors go, it couldn’t be less subtle. But then nuance isn’t exactly in the film’s vocabulary. Written, directed and produced by Steven Knight (Locke), Serenity doesn’t so much veer into self-parody as hurtle inexorably towards it. Everything here is over the top: the sex, the dialogue, the earnestness. It’s a sweaty collection of neo-noir motifs, with a twist so seismically stupid that you’re not only left with whiplash but months of intense physiotherapy.

The setting is the fictional Plymouth Island, a tropical seaside community tucked away in the Florida Keys, where Baker Dill (McConaughey), a hard-drinking, down-on-his-luck captain of a small fishing boat named “Serenity”, sticks obsessively to a routine. Every day, cigarette dangling from his lip, he tries – and fails – to “catch that damn fish”; every day, he drinks in the isle’s lone watering hole and pays a visit to his lover/client, Constance (Diane Lane), who says things like “Mr Baker Dill, I am increasingly fond of the way you say hello,” before rewarding him with a thick wad of cash. “You’re no more than a hooker,” she chides, to which Dill quickly retorts, “A hooker who can’t afford hooks.”

The cycle is disrupted, however, by the arrival of Dill’s femme fatale ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway, complete with blonde wig and beauty spot), who is accompanied by a 180-degree camera swoop and an eerie fluttering on the soundtrack as if to spell out “she’s trouble”. Turns out they have a 13-year-old son together, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh). From here, we also learn that Dill’s an Iraq veteran named John Mason, now living under a pseudonym, and that Karen left him for a rich, sadistic monster called Frank (Jason Clarke). Bruised and scared, she’s come to Plymouth to make Dill an offer: in exchange for $10m, will he take her husband out fishing, get him hammered and throw him to the sharks? If not for her then for Patrick, with whom Dill seems to have some kind of psychic connection.

Dill considers the proposal while talking grandiosely about temptation to his first mate, Duke (Djimon Hounsou), jumping off cliffs in the nude, and knocking back rum in a mug labelled “World’s Greatest Dad”. Meanwhile, a mysterious travelling salesman (Jeremy Strong) relentlessly pursues him around the island but keeps missing him.

To reveal any more specifics would risk spoiling one of the most genuinely ridiculous about-turns in cinematic history – a jolt that tries to justify Serenity’s overblown aesthetic. But if anything, Knight shows his hand too early, leaving us with a po-faced mashup of Body Heat and The Truman Show that is far from the meditation on free will it was perhaps intended to be.

Yet the film does, inadvertently, find a conduit to laughter through a couple of hilarious references in McConaughey’s performance: the laugh, for example, is pure Popeye, while the scene in which he shouts at the sky would be enough to make The Room’s Tommy Wiseau blush.

Serenity was originally scheduled to be released in the US back in September, ahead of awards season. For Knight, it’s safe to say he won’t be landing that particular tuna with this one. Now that’s justice.

Serenity is released in UK cinemas on 1 March