Corey Milne stands at the intersection of gaming and world history to see what he can see.
Right gang, you know I don’t flag up spoiler warnings here. Modern spoiler etiquette is a tedious nightmare we cannot wake from, but that’s not what this month’s column is about. I’m going to be talking about and spoiling the 2019 film Serenity, starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. I am placing a spoiler warning right here. This one time! If you’re someone who enjoys cinematic trainwrecks like The Snowman, then maybe you should stop reading this column for now because this film, oh my god this film. Grab a friend, have some drinks and see if you can figure out the audacious plot twist before it happens. The clues are there and it’s so dumb. That’s why I’m not talking about a game this issue. This is one of the stupidest films I’ve seen in a long time and I can’t stop thinking about it. It has burrowed into my brain and now it’ll be a part of me forever.
In Serenity, McConaughey plays a fisherman called Baker Dill, an ex-soldier who lives on Plymouth Island. By day he has sex with Diane Lane for boat fuel money. At night he dreams of catching the seemingly only tuna in the entire ocean. It’s his white whale fish, but as Baker Dill tells us, it’s not just a tuna. It’s Justice! The audience at this point, not 10 minutes into the film can’t know what this means. We only know Baker Dill is prepared to threaten the tourists on his boat with a knife should they try to stop him catching his prize.
This is one of the stupidest films I’ve seen in a long time and I can’t stop thinking about it. It has burrowed into my brain and now it’ll be a part of me forever.
Eventually, Baker Dill’s ex-wife (Anne Hathaway) shows up and offers him a large sum of money to kill her current husband (Jason Clarke), under the guise of a fishing trip gone awry. The film isn’t subtle in telling us what a piece of shit this guy is, leveling the twin barrels of spousal and child abuse at the audience and letting rip. This man needs to die, but Baker Dill only has time for one kind of justice. The kind that travels at 75km/h and haunts the deep waters of his mind!
Baker Dill does end up facilitating the man’s murder though. While the man is battling the tuna on the end of his line, Baker Dill undoes the safety harness and the violent criminal is dragged down to a watery grave by Justice (do you get it?). Why did our hero finally decide to take a life? Oh, because he’s a videogame character and Plymouth Island isn’t real! That’s right, Serenity is a secret videogame movie and with this revelation the entire plot implodes!
Matthew McConaughey has been dead this whole time and is based on his real son’s memory of him. The child built an entire digital world to retreat from his real-life abuse at the hands of his step-father, who he bases his game’s villain on. When McConaughey goes against the rules in the game and kills the man, even though all of the other island residents try their best to make him go fishing; the child in real life picks up a knife and kills his step-father. This film ends in patricide because Baker Dill, faced with the meaninglessness of existence and clearly channeling the film’s writers, tanks a bottle of rum and thought fuck it, why not?
That’s the broad strokes and I don’t think this film can decide what it wants to say. It seemingly ties itself into knots so that it doesn’t say anything. How very like a modern game indeed! No politics here, just one man and his fish. Although I think the plot twist derails any coherency the film might have desperately been trying to hold onto.
Serenity recognizes games are an accepted and recognizable part of the modern media landscape. Plymouth is a refuge from real-world violence and an avenue for expression. Alongside this though, games are also portrayed as a cause of real-world violence, with the murder of the father directly connected to the fisherman’s actions. Itself an established and classic criticism of the medium. Yet the film never leans into either angle to make any statement. The game itself tries to dissuade Baker Dill from murder, which then implies a continuation of abuse in the boy’s household.
The whole thing is confused. I was confused. Perhaps its oddball story and paper-thin characters are part of its mimicry of games? I hesitate to give it that much credit. This is that special kind of bad writing, the kind that makes you yell at your television. I admire that it tried to have its fish and eat it, but like Diane Lane said, “you can get the lady, or you could catch that tuna that’s in your head.”
Corey Milne is an Irish freelance writer who likes to poke at that strange intersection where games meet history. A roundup of his writing can be found at coreymilne.com. You can join his Rad-Lands motorcycle bandit gang on Twitter @Corey_Milne.