“We weren’t making a story about a crazy woman. We were making a story about a woman driven crazy by love.” Even as Jennifer Lawrence’s explanation of her role in Susan Bier’s Serena offers a fine, not to say nonsensical, distinction, it also derails the other promotional talking point raised in her interview, that Serena is about a “strong woman in a man’s world”.
That world is a logging camp in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1929, and it’s a world in upheaval. George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper), owner of Pemberton Lumber Company, has lost most of his fortune in the stock market crash. Still, he shrugs off the warnings of his business partner, Buchanan (David Dencik), and appears to straddle two spheres in the film’s opening scenes, working alongside his crew in the forest and offering 20 dollar gold pieces to any one of them who can track a panther for him to kill because he “wants one”.
He’s shrugging off another warning as well: the government wants turn his acreage into a national park, either by forcing him to sell cheap or lose it to eminent domain. George argues for the American worker’s “freedom to work hard and better himself,” while government representatives point out that he’s the one bettering himself at his employees’ expense.
Hoping to quell the concerns of his creditors, George returns home to Boston, where he meets Serena, a glamorous, independent, and, conveniently, wealthy woman. She’s also from a timber family, and knows her stuff. George introduces himself and follows up with, “I think we should be married.” This and all other scenes showing the couple together are awkward and unconvincing, a huge problem for a narrative premised on their “love at first sight”.
Following their wedding, Serena returns with George to North Carolina, all silk shirts and red lips, a striking contrast to the mud and log cabins surrounding her. The first problem she encounters upon her arrival is Rachel (Ana Ularu), the camp cook and George’s pregnant ex-lover. Determined to establish her position as wife and partner, Serena descends on the logging camp, where the crew dismisses her on sight.
Like her first meeting with George and their wedding, this moment happens too quickly, providing scant evidence that Serena is, as George insists, “equal to any man here”. She proceeds to swing an ax, deliver life-saving first-aid, and train a hawk to weed out snakes. We are to believe that Serena, like the hawk, is merciless in dealing with any threat to her and George.
She attributes her fierce protectiveness to the depth of the love she shares with he husband, asserting, “Our love began the day we met. Nothing before that even exists.” She convinces George that the all is permissible in shielding their relationship, their company, their plans for the future. Despite their declarations (and the film’s promotional talking points), it soon becomes clear that their connection is more about sex, money, and power than love.
All this makes Serena a frustrating character for viewers. Despite her obvious business savvy, athleticism, and instinct for assessing the people around her, Serena insists on reducing her to the most banal stereotypes. She is siren-like, clouding George’s judgment with sex, but also childlike, letting George bathe her nightly and also manipulative and jealous.
She is also “crazy.” To clarify, “crazy” here means murderous. When threatened, Serena sees only one way to “solve it,” as she puts it, which is to enlist men to kill for her. Maybe she’s driven crazy by greed and entitlement rather than love. She may also be driven crazy by fear of losing her financial security if George’s questionable business dealings come to light, or the fear of losing George’s affection to Rachel and her baby, Jacob. He, like his Biblical namesake, is a potential usurper who might lay claim to his father’s fortune and snatch it away from Serena or her own “legitimate” heir.
There is nothing original in Serena’s excuse that everything she does is, as the explains to George, “for us”. Hers is a run-of-the mill greed and revenge story. And within those confines, Serena just doesn’t know what to do her. Every time the movie makes the claim she’s a “strong woman”, it just as quickly reduces her to the worst clichés.