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Review: Steven Knight’s Serenity Doesn’t Thrive on Noir Traditions

The film’s twist ending exists only to retroactively justify writer-director Steven Knight’s feeble stylistic choices.

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Serenity
Photo: Aviron Pictures

Writer-director Steven Knight’s latest noir thriller, Serenity, commences in strange fashion, with tuna fisherman Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) taking some tourists out to sea, only to push the men aside when one hooks a huge tuna that he’s been desperately chasing for more than a year. When one of the tourists protests, Baker holds a knife to the man’s throat. The tuna ultimately gets away, leaving Baker without his prize or the day’s wages he’d hoped to earn off his now-furious guests. Baker is a simple man with simple tastes, but he still needs money for boat fuel, and his single-minded devotion to landing his monster tuna threatens to leave him stranded on shore.

Just as Baker’s financial situation hits a critical low, he walks into the local watering hole and runs into Karen (Anne Hathaway), his ex-wife. Hathaway signals her character’s role as a femme fatale with all the subtlety of a foghorn. Karen is one of those film characters who can’t speak to someone unless facing away from them and looking back over her shoulder, and she talks out of the corner of her mouth in an unwaveringly sultry drawl. In a town filled with working-class folk with old clothes and mist-flattened hair, Karen’s designer dress and perfect coif mark her as a disruption to the norm, and Baker greets her with immediate agitation, wondering when she’ll leave town. Naturally, Karen has ventured to this backwater seeking a favor: Claiming that she’s being abused by her new husband, Frank (Jason Clarke), and she wants to set up a weekend fishing trip on Baker’s boat with the express purpose of killing him.

Karen’s arrival gives structure to an initially loose-limbed film, yoking Baker’s Ahab-like pursuit of the monster tuna to a spin on Double Indemnity. But it’s in the entrance of Frank that the film briefly develops into something more than a stale retread of noir trademarks. Nominally, Frank fits within a genre tradition of unnerving husbands, but any ambiguity as to his treatment of Karen is immediately obliterated almost as soon as he kicks the door open to Karen’s hotel bathroom and beats her as a matter of dispassionate routine. Clarke is all jagged smirks and narrowed eyes as Frank. Where McConaughey and Hathaway come across as acting out well-worn archetypes, Clarke transforms Frank into pure nightmare fuel—a figure who wouldn’t be out of place in the margins of a David Lynch film. Frank is such a disruptive presence that he briefly elevates the film into something promisingly deranged.

Soon, however, Serenity sinks back into the quotidian. Interiors are plunged in shadow, often lit by dim lanterns or the distant glow of a lighthouse beacon. Likewise, the film’s dialogue attempts to add a hard-boiled spin to small-town coastal life. At one point, Baker’s local sugar momma, Constance (Diane Lane), playfully calls him a hooker when she gives him cash for his fishing supplies, to which he cynically responds, “A hooker with no hooks.”

Gradually, Knight telegraphs a bizarre undertone to this small town, mostly suggested by the sight of a suited salesman, Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong), who constantly chases after Baker with the hope of speaking to him. When the two finally converse, Reid triggers what will go down as one of the most baffling, illogical twists in the history of cinema, an upheaval so massive that it suddenly reorients Knight’s lazy neo-noir tics as a postmodern exercise. But therein lies the problem: The narrative switcheroo that Knight employs doesn’t deepen the narrative or its characters. Instead, the twist exists only to retroactively justify the director’s feeble stylistic choices, recasting them as deliberately thin riffs on well-worn genre material.

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, Jeremy Strong Director: Steven Knight Screenwriter: Steven Knight Distributor: Aviron Pictures Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Awards

Oscars 2019: Who Will Win? Who Should Win? Our Final Predictions

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them.

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Roma
Photo: Netflix

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits. Across the last 24 days, Ed Gonzalez and I have mulled over the academy’s existential crisis and how it’s polluted this year’s Oscar race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again. We’re spent, and while we don’t know if we’ll have it in us next year to do this all over again, we just might give it another go if Oscar proves us wrong on Sunday in various categories.

Below are our final Oscar predictions, with links to our individual articles.

Picture: Green Book
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Original Screenplay: Green Book
Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Foreign Language: Roma
Documentary Feature: RBG
Animated Feature Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Documentary Short: Period. End of Sentence
Animated Short: Weekends
Live Action Short: Skin
Film Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Production Design: The Favourite
Cinematography: Cold War
Costume Design: The Favourite
Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
Score: If Beale Street Could Talk
Song: “Shallow,” A Star Is Born
Sound Editing: First Man
Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Visual Effects: First Man

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture

The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.

But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?

Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.

In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: Roma or BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Film

Review: The Competition Patiently Looks Inside an Iconic Film School

Claire Simon knows that the best way to capture the anxiousness of a moment is to leave it unembellished.

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The Competition
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Claire Simon’s The Competition follows the rigorous selection process for Paris’s iconic film and television school La Fémis, which every year accepts 60 new students, out of some 1,000 applicants. Throughout, Simon’s camera quietly observes the various phases of the selection process, aware that to best capture the anxiousness of a moment is to not embellish it. As a result, we come to take great pleasure in watching the most menial of tasks, such as a committee member counting numbers or checking boxes on a form.

The competition here progresses from an auditorium room with hundreds of young people writing an analytical essay on a film sequence for three hours into a complex tapestry of human interactions between cinema professionals who interview and run workshops with young candidates, and later deliberate. These professionals, who are both male and female and mostly white, seem profoundly invested in the process, as though they were hiring a crew to work on their personal projects. They are, in reality, helping shape French cinema for decades to come, and cinema history writ large. Alumi from La Fémis include Claire Denis, Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, Arnaud Desplechin, André Téchiné, and François Ozon.

While those responsible for the selection process keep things mostly courteous among themselves during deliberations, it’s precisely when conflict emerges around a candidate that we realize how gracious Simon is with her subjects. It would have been easy to play up the drama or drum up miserabilist tales around the high hopes of candidates and the frustrations that follow. Simon focuses instead on how candidates trying to make a case for themselves are often self-contradicting, and as such difficult to truly assess; the film is also about the impossibility of objective criteria when it comes to such matters. The truly awful performances are never shown, only referred to in passing after they happened. This isn’t some reality show that allows us to revel in schadenfreude or root for charismatic underdogs.

This is curatorial practice of the highest order, too, on Simon’s part, and a meta one at that. Is this not what good cinema, the cinema that La Fémis’s most famous alumni have produced, is about? A cinema that refuses the imposition of meaning and facile interpretation? But Simon does pay a price for her commitment to little interference. In a sea of white professionals interviewing white would-be students, we keep waiting for the race question to emerge in The Competition. Not as the cynical aside by a panelist who says choosing one black, one Asian, and one Arabic student would make the administration happy, especially if the students are poor, but some kind of subtle editorial underscoring of the absence of anything that isn’t bourgeois—a formatting too naturalized for most in the film to see.

When we finally see a black candidate from the Ivory Coast, the daughter of political refugees, recounting her precarious background to two committee members, she’s unable to name the title of a single film that she likes. She thinks and thinks, and the camera lingers, very much consistent with its behavior up to that point—a dynamic that seems to work against the candidate, whose prolonged silence turns her into a humiliated object. In an act of either courage or cluelessness, she says that she can’t even remember the last time she went to the movies. Were she one of the many comely bourgeois French boys that seem to win over the interviewers for no logical reason, her unvarnished spontaneity may have been forgiven as a cute moment of panic. Instead, the women interviewing the girl are horrified that that she can’t come up with the title of a film (not even Titanic), and as they move on to the next task at hand, it’s as if the girl’s history of violence, and fearlessness, counts for nothing.

Director: Claire Simon Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 2016

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