They don’t make movies like To Have and Have Not anymore. That 1944 Humphrey Bogart thriller (best remembered as the film debut of Lauren Bacall) is deliberately evoked in the nostalgic noir Serenity, by British screenwriter-director Steven Knight. Borrowing the premise of that Bogart–Howard Hawks–William Faulkner classic for this Matthew McConaughey vehicle, Knight’s movie is not entirely comparable, but Serenity dares a moral reckoning worthy of Knight’s predecessors.
McConaughey’s Baker Dill, a haggard tuna-fisher in Plymouth, Fla., not only recalls Bogart’s expatriate boat owner, he’s also an Iraq War vet — expat from contemporary cynical America. He’s lost something and searches for it in an uncatchable ocean prey. (So he’s also Melville’s Captain Ahab and Hemingway’s Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea.) His odyssey is interrupted by a visitor from the past: ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) in the same sultry white attire and blond tresses as Kathleen Turner in the ’80s neo-noir Body Heat. She wants Baker to kill her abusive husband (Jason Clarke), a boorish millionaire who is also cruel to Baker’s stepson Patrick (Raphael Sayegh).
These generational crosscurrents are key to Knight’s ambition as well as his failing. He attempts to fit conservative moral precepts familiar to old-fashioned film lovers into modern, immoral license appropriate to video-game culture. Sixties college kids recognized Bogart’s alienation, which made his heroes seem cool for rejecting society’s hypocritical norm — just as Baker does. Knight makes sure that Baker keeps to his moral obligations, split between manliness (sex with local Diane Lane, post-divorce chivalry with Hathaway); brotherhood (black shipmate Djimon Hounsou); and fatherhood. But these qualities oppose Ready Player One–style autistic solipsism. Conservative and progressive narrative paradigms clash.
I watched Serenity (titled after Baker’s fishing boat) with an audience of Millennial reviewers who guffawed at every plot gaffe (those Body Heat/Double Indemnity echoes that, ironically, Reagan-era ’80s reviewers had cheered). They derided each of Knight’s conservative moral cues — from Hawks, Melville, Hemingway, even Ang Lee’s Iraq war masterpiece Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
The screening room claque’s cackling didn’t show their sophistication but proved that they were unprepared for Knight’s sincere, sometimes banal emotion. They ignored the significance of Baker upbraiding Hounsou for his attempt to “save me from temptation”; and the detail that the elusive fish that broke Baker’s heart is named “Justice.”
When the cool kids laughed at Baker quoting Shakespeare, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” the conservative–liberal, classical–modern problem came clear. Serenity — a film about a man chased by his conscience — is Knight’s dream narrative. Baker differs from professional media pundits, and nonprofessional bloggers, who get off on excoriating others for their differences; he tries to make sense of his own destiny.
Knight dramatizes this dilemma (Baker being asked “You know who the creator is?”) in terms that mix Hollywood genre with video-game “logic.” The cool kids didn’t catch that McConaughey, here, continues the existential questions of his 2014 Christopher Nolan film Interstellar. This film’s father–child tension (shown in flashbacks and telepathic cutaways) comes from the abused stepson’s imagination, which guides the narrative.
In Amazing Grace (2006), the best film Knight has written, he explored the legacy of William Wilberforce and the issue of slavery as a moral dilemma defining British history and man’s relationship to God. In Serenity, Baker considers murder and asks, “What if the Creator changes the rules?”
In the Interstellar era, a teenage boy addicted to video games to escape the horrors of his existence represents the narrative authority who constructs the corrupted world in which Baker is trapped — and that an essentially conservative filmmaker like Knight must cater to if he wants studio financing. Critics who laugh at the way Serenity turns in on itself like an Interstellar II have forgotten the moral lesson of To Have and Have Not. They are missing Knight’s own cry for help.