Brow Beat

The Bonkers Twist Ending of Serenity, Explained

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway are what?!

Matthew McConaughey in the 2019 film Serenity.
The look of a man not impressed with this twist. Graham Bartholomew/Aviron Pictures

Last week, Anne Hathaway took to Instagram to promote her new movie Serenity—or maybe it was to do some pre-emptive damage control—by praising the island noir’s inability to be “easily broken down into sound bites.” On talk shows, the actress has similarly suggested that the film isn’t as simple as its premise: a woman in distress (Hathaway) asking a former lover (Matthew McConaughey) to take her abusive husband (Jason Clarke) on a fishing trip in order to get him far from shore and kill him. Indeed, about two-thirds of the way into Serenity, it lobs twist after twist at viewers, ultimately upending its reality so thoroughly that writer-director Steven Knight (who previously helmed the actually quite good Locke) seems to be conducting a master class on how to polarize audiences through surprises. All aboard, but beware: Here be spoilers.

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So what’s the main twist?

Are you sure you want to know?

Yes?

Matthew McConaughey’s character has an existential crisis when he discovers that he is the protagonist in a video game.

Wait, what?

About a decade ago, McConaughey’s character, Baker, left to fight in Iraq, and his partner, Karen (Hathaway), married an extremely rich and unpleasant man, Frank (Clarke). To escape the sounds of Frank beating his mom, Baker and Karen’s son, Patrick (newcomer Rafael Sayegh), became a whiz-kid video game designer who created a world in which his father kills his mom’s abusive new spouse and saves him from ever having to overhear any domestic violence again.

The kid really designs Baker to care more about saving his son from having to hear abuse than about saving his former lover from being abused?

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Yes, and the movie doesn’t seem to realize how narcissistic this is.

Do we ever find out what happened to the real Baker?

Yep, he died in Iraq.

So it’s all just the teen’s fantasy about his dead father?

Did I mention that in the video game Baker is also obsessed with catching his own Moby Dick, a tuna named Justice? Or that he bathes by cliff-diving naked into the sea every morning?

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So, yes?

Or that Video Game Baker is so absurdly virile and good at sex that a neighbor played by Diane Lane essentially pays him for sex?

OK, you made your point. But does the movie ever explain why this son would be so fixated on imagining scenarios in which his dead father has sex?

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Nope!

So that’s it? The entire movie takes place inside a game?

Not quite. When Baker and Karen finally do manage to kill the evil Video Game Frank, the real-life Patrick feels empowered enough to murder the evil Real-Life Frank.

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Is that supposed to be a happy ending?

Well, at first Patrick is arrested, but he’s soon released back to his mother. In the game, after Baker returns to shore, he receives a call at a pay phone from the fictional Patrick, and father and son “reunite” (virtually—the father is still dead) to celebrate their collective achievement.

Why does all of this kinda make me feel squicked out?

Maybe because Serenity begins as a story that uses violence against a female character to advance a male character’s character development, and the “twist” is that the rescuing of a female character from that violence then becomes a father-son bonding exercise?

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Hmm, maybe.

It also feels pretty gross that Patrick portrays his mom as a gold digger somewhat deserving abuse for leaving his dad to marry Frank, when in the “real” world, we have no idea whether Karen deserted Baker while he was in Iraq or simply moved on after his death and ended up with a very bad man. And from the looks of Patrick’s bedroom and the real Frank’s employment as a construction worker, it doesn’t seem as though his mom married for money at all. Is Patrick simply heightening the game’s noir aspects by portraying his mom as a money-hungry femme fatale, or does he actually blame her in part for marrying Frank? The script is too underdeveloped for us to know, but that’s certainly the kind of basic information we’d want to know about the character who turns out to be the movie’s true protagonist.

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So this teenage boy designed for his fictional father to undergo a whole existential crisis about being a video game character, when that revelation actually has zero bearing on the catharsis of Baker killing Frank, since the fisherman was going to do it anyway?

It’s a January release for a reason.

But is it so bad it’s good?

It’s definitely bad.

What if I’m the kind of masochist who loved The Book of Henry?

I don’t personally find showcases of gross incompetence engaging, and even on that score this wannabe Black Mirror episode isn’t quite as extraordinary as TBOH. But if that’s your thing, this may be the movie for you.

So M. Night Shyamalan didn’t even write the worst twist ending of the month?

Now that’s a twist.

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