We’re told that panthers “eat the heart first” in Serena‘s first moments, which find George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper), rifle in hand, looking to bag just such a cat. It’s 1929 in Smoky Mountain, North Carolina, and Pemberton, a timber baron, is trying to bring the railway through town in the wake of the stock-market crash. Everyone’s poor. Workers keep dying (rattlesnakes and faulty equipment, mostly). And, pressingly, with the market gone bad, the money isn’t really there.
Anyway, Pemberton finds his panther: the titular Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), the lone survivor of another timber family who perished in a fire. He chases her down on horseback (seriously) to introduce himself, and “I think we should be married” is like the third thing out of his mouth. Which, well, works: the very next scene is a love making/marriage montage. And then Serena slowly, surely, starts exerting her influence over his work. Which starts out great—she’s got excellent techniques for rattlesnake control—until her efforts seem to get a little less trustworthy and a little more dangerously manipulative.
All of which to say: Serena, the film, looks to split the difference between a shifting power-dynamic romance and what’s-her-true-motive? thriller, but it doesn’t juggle either of those elements particularly well. Director Susanne Bier is happy to drop one of those angles for long spells, picking it back up well after its urgency has dissipated. It’s kinda like Macbeth in early 20th-century America, if you’d like, but it only half-heartedly goes after the crown.
Cooper and Lawrence—in their third recent onscreen pairing, following the Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013), which I guess makes them the screen couple of the moment—don’t mesh quite so well this time around. His grit-your-teeth frontier stoicism and her restrained, slow-burn passion and status plays are individually solid, but don’t quite blend into convincing romance. Serena is a unhurriedly paced film—albeit with some jarring flashes of violence—but to a fault: the urgency of either of its key throughlines rarely comes across with the potency necessary to make either of them all that satisfying.
Directed by Susanne Bier