SERENA Mountain Madness


Directed by Susanne Bier

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, David Dencik


The last time Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper were on screen together, it resulted in Oscars all ‘round. We’re probably not going to see the same result off the back of this spineless adaptation of Ron Rash’s 2008 “Appalachian Gothic” novel.

Cooper is George Pemberton, a young entrepreneur struggling to spin money from a timber claim in 1930s North Carolina. When he returns from consulting with his city creditors, he brings with him his new bride, the mysterious Serena (Jennifer Lawrence). While Pemberton’s partner, Buchanan (David Dencik) and his hard-bitten lumberjacks doubt Serean will take to life in their rough and tumble camp, she soon demonstrates steely determination and canny business acumen in addition to her already obvious charm. However, Serena’s determination soon gives way to insanity when she learns she can’t bear children after a miscarriage, and her envy of the bastard Pemberton fathered on a local girl turns murderous.

The broad strokes of the plot sound great, if overblown, and we could have had a nice little histrionic potboiler here if anyone involved had enough conviction to play to the genre’s strengths. Unfortunately, Christopher Kyle’s script jettisons much of what was interesting about Rash’s novel, leaving a fairly insipid drama bereft of strong themes or characters.

What frustrates is that the better film that this could have been is clearly echoed in what we actually get on screen. As a character, Serena is kind of a half-assed Lady Macbeth, although the filmmakers refrain from having her do anything truly unforgivable until the third act – perhaps the idea of Jennifer Lawrence, the world’s BFF, scheming and murdering to hold onto a woodcutting enterprise was deemed improper. Ironically, the film would have been much more engaging if she – and Cooper, come to think of it –  had been allowed to go full tilt Machiavellian. About the only actor who seems to understand the pulpy nature of the material is Rhys Ifans, who plays Serena’s loyal-unto-death one-handed henchman, Galloway. His intermittent presence brings much needed life to a limp film.

It’s a very nice looking limp film, though. Both Lawrence and Cooper possess some of that old school Hollywood charisma and they’re watchable even when they’re given little to work with. The period production design is as good as you’d expect, while the gorgeous location work – the Czech Republic stands in for the Smoky Mountains – is evocative of a mood that the rest of the film largely fails to support. If you’re in a particularly forgiving mood you might get something out of it, but ultimately Serena is underdone when it should have been overcooked.