Susanne Bier usually specializes in directing actors. The talented Danish filmmaker has coaxed great performances from Connie Nielsen in 2004's Brothers, Mads Mikkelsen in 2006's After the Wedding, and Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro in 2007's Things We Lost in the Fire. These partnerships produced volatile and profound characters dealing with the after-effects of trauma while trying to start life anew. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of Bier's latest work with Hollywood royalty Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in the Depression-era mountain-noir, Serena.
Set in a makeshift mining town deep atop the fog-filled Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, the film revels in the textures and scale of period detail. Streets are paved in mud, railway tracks are uneven and speckled with cracks, and every cold wooden interior is minimalist in design. Social status can be defined by how many layers of dirt don the surface of your clothing. Cooper plays a tenacious logging baron named George Pemberton, who seems hell-bent on stripping the entire country of trees just to make a profit. Standing in his way are those citizens lobbying to protect the forests by establishing a national park.
This is one of many underlying conflicts that come and go throughout Serena depending on which direction the narrative feels like heading. For a while, Bier appears interested in examining a very under explored segment of American history, the tension between firmly rooted capitalist industry titans and the earliest of eco-activists. Once the dashing and tormented Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) comes into the picture, this subplot gets tossed by the wayside. The blonde-haired vixen catches George's eye at an equestrian show and the two instantly fall for each other in a way that can only happen in a Hollywood melodrama.
A few scenes later they are married, enraptured in each other's arms, and spending most of the time in the bedroom. Who needs business when you've got love? But we never get any time to understand Lawrence's character past her wide-eyed romanticism or tragic back story. Soon, George takes Serena back to his logging outfit, except she's no trophy wife; it's quickly established that the mystery woman was once the daughter of a lumber baron out West before a tragic fire destroyed her business and killed her entire family. This is where Bier's handling of the material really turns south.
At first it seems Serena's presence (and impending domination of the business) is a kind of feminist statement about post-Depression-era gender equality. This in itself would, again, be something of interest. But Serena takes another right turn, moving into the strange and misguided territory of crime film. The crux of this shift is Serena's crumbling psyche and jealousy, which ultimately spells her husband's downfall. That George's corrupt business practices were already bankrupting the company eventually becomes beside the point.
Tracing methodically alongside the couple's slow moral descent is a spiritual presence personified by Rhys Ifans' backcountry tracker and the mention of a mythical panther roaming the mountainside. Bier fumbles the balancing of these darker themes with the more traditional revenge and betrayal elements found in many a noir film. In the end, Serena, which opens Friday, March 27, tries to be too many genres at once without understanding why or how they could potentially work in tandem.
The actors' inconsistencies don't help, either. All three leads appear to be acting in different films: the brooding and menacing Ifans thinks he's in a Western, while Cooper and Lawrence might as well be performing the Appalachia version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. All of it looks beautiful, thanks to Morten Søborg's pristine camerawork, but none of the pieces fit together. Ultimately, Serena's insanely abrupt transitions, jarringly brutal violence and rail-thin performances provide the kind of tonal schizophrenia found only in the most extreme of Hollywood messes.