After the successful and magnetic pairing of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in both Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013), there’s no reason to believe the third time isn’t the charm as well. That’s the first mistake of Susanne Bier’s woefully overcooked dramatic western, Serena, which places the pair as fierce lovers along the front lines of America’s expansion in rural North Carolina during the 1920’s.
Struggling to keep his construction company afloat during an especially trenchant railroad-clearing job through those Carolina hills, head honcho Pemberton (Cooper) has to deal with all types of problems. If it’s not the local sheriff (Toby Jones) protesting the project for strictly personal reasons, it’s the dissolute courage of his partner Buchanan (David Dencik) whose determination is broken by mounting debts and repeated accidents to the workers.
During a trip back home to Boston, Pemberton meets and falls head over heels for local girl Serena (Lawrence). Their torrid relationship is explained quickly in the first few minutes. After all, Serena isn’t really a romance, but a black-hearted examination of how corrupt and infested love can manipulate someone even with the best intentions.
Once settled together back in rural North Carolina, their relationship changes. Serena begins to take charge of the construction operation through insidious methods, namely aligning herself with the gritty, stout accomplice of her husband named Galloway (Rhys Ifans). Feeling as though he just stepped out of a Sergio Leone western, Ifans’ character is the most allegorical, serving as a guide for Pemberton’s failed attempts to track and kill a black panther that’s been rumored to be roaming the area. Like everything else in his life recently, Pemberton is searching and waiting for something magical, but it’s the harsh natures of reality that eventually catch up with him. And oh do they ever.
Written by Christopher Kyle (based on a novel by Ron Rash), director Susanna Bier seems like the right person for a passionate exploration of madness and murder based on her previous dour efforts, but everything in Serena feels rushed and disjointed. We’re barely acclimated to the relationship between Cooper and Lawrence before things shift into film noir territory, followed by the potboiler thriller aspects of the final third involving past lovers and burning homes. It’s all too much, too fast. The rumors of being heavily re-edited and sacked onto a studio shelf for more than two years seem to have honestly drained the life and coherence from it.
All of this is a shame since the idea of manifest destiny and the geographic/emotional tolls it unleashes has been the subject of some complex films, like Robert Altman’s masterpiece McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim (2001). What is it that causes people to go crazy in the wilderness? Is it the suffocating locale, prone to scathing winters and humid summers? Or is it the rugged sense of alienation and the stressful idea of standing on the precipice of an unscathed territory?
Like those previous films, Serena longs to answer these vivid questions, yet its strained seriousness avoids any real artistry and settles for being a histrionic soap opera instead. While Lawrence delivers screams, rants and Shakespearian plots of revenge, everyone else looks bored with the whole affair. I understand Cooper and Lawrence are currently filming a fourth film together. Maybe four times is the charm instead.
Serena opens in limited release on March 27th