In Depression-era North Carolina, George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) is an ambitious timber baron who meets Serena Shaw (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman with a sad past. He falls in love with her, they marry, and Serena comes with George to his land. There, she starts taking control of things, pressuring and questioning George, while remaining affectionate towards him.
George's business partner Buchanan feels threatened by her, as she begins to exceed his authority. Things grow worse between George and Buchanan, and Buchanan strikes a deal with the local sheriff, who wants to buy George's land to make a park. George is hurt by Buchanan's betrayal, and Serena convinces George that Buchanan was never his friend.
The next day, they both go shooting alone from the group attempting to flush out a bear. After some snide remarks from Buchanan, George contemplates killing him only to hesitate and be seen by Buchanan. As Buchanan cocks his rifle, George fires first and shoots him in the chest. Campbell, George's worker, witnesses the murder, but denies it when Sheriff McDowell inquires. The death is ruled an accident. Serena consoles George and justifies his actions.
One day, he sees his illegitimate son, Jacob, posing with his mother, Rachel, for a picture. He feels responsible for the boy, and since Rachel never asked for anything, he begins giving sums of money in envelopes to her for Jacob. Serena remains unaware of this, though she does consider Rachel and the baby a threat.
One day, an accident occurs in the forest, and Galloway, a mysterious worker who has a respect for, and from, Serena, loses his hand. Serena rushes to help him, and rides a horse. She and George rush to the hospital that night where he gives her a blood transfusion and their baby is stillborn. They learn that she can never again bear children. Things continue to grow worse, and Rachel's baby becomes more obvious to Serena.
While Serena and George are away in the city, Campbell finds ledgers in the safe when he goes to collect the money for payday, and presents them to the Sheriff, preparing to testify that George has been giving bribes to the senator and that he saw George shoot Buchanan deliberately. The couple discover that Campbell has taken the ledgers, and realise that he could potentially ruin them.
Galloway tells Serena that he knows where Campbell is, and then tells George that he knows where the panther is, leading George going out into the forest to hunt it. Galloway heads into town to find Campbell at a hotel, and retrieve the ledgers. Meanwhile, Serena discovers the picture of Rachel and her baby that George had hidden, discovers that George has been giving Rachel money, and is angered by this revelation. She scratches the baby's face from the photograph.
Serena leaves with Galloway in the truck, telling George that she has some business to take care of. They head to Rachel's house, and when they don't find her there, they head for Widow Jenkin's house. Meanwhile, Vaughn calls the Sheriff, worried about Rachel and what Serena is planning to do, and the Sheriff heads to Widow Jenkin's house, where he finds her already dead. The Sheriff takes Rachel and her baby away.
In the morning, the Sheriff heads to George's cabin and begins questioning him about the murder. The Sheriff reveals that Galloway killed Campbell, and that he suspects they also killed Widow Jenkins and are still after Rachel and her child. George asks Serena if she sent Galloway to kill them, and she tries to reassure him that it had to be done. George grows angry and storms out, and chokes Serena when she follows him out, almost killing her. He then drives off as Serena returns to the home.
George goes to the Sheriff to turn himself in, only agreeing to do so after he tells George where Rachel and the baby. George races off to try and save Rachel before Galloway gets to her. Galloway tracks Rachel to the train station, and she hides from him in one of the sheds. As the train approaches, George arrives and sees Galloway, who sees Rachel jump onto the train. George goes after them, and confronts Galloway. The two of them fight, though George manages to get Galloway's knife and slit his throat.
The next morning, George bids Rachel and the baby farewell, as they head off to go and live with Vaughn. George returns to the camp, and then sets off to hunt the panther. He spots it, and shoots it, though only wounds it at first. The panther leaps at him from behind, and manages to wound him fatally, though he manages to kill it with a hunting knife as he is dying.
The Sheriff returns to the Pemberton cabin with George's body. Serena, having expected George to return, grows upset and does not go and identify his body. As the Sheriff leaves, Serena lies on the bed, and picks up a lighter. After staring at it for a few moments, she throws the lighter onto the floor and stays in the cabin as it burns.
The film was originally to be directed by Darren Aronofsky, with Angelina Jolie as the title character. Susanne Bier replaced Aronofsky and became the new director of the film. Lawrence recommended Bradley Cooper for the project. They had worked together previously on Silver Linings Playbook and they got along so well that they often spoke about working together again in the future. When Lawrence read the script for Serena, she sent a copy to Cooper and asked if he would do it with her. He agreed and Bier cast him as George Pemberton.
This was at the time the third project starring Cooper and Lawrence, following Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, and this was the second time they were playing love interests.
Filming took place in the Czech Republic at Barrandov Studios from March 26 to May 2012. Bier took more than eighteen months to complete the film, but there were no re-shoots or problems in post-production. Bier also had to take time away to promote Love Is All You Need.
The film premiered at the BFI London Film Festival on October 13, 2014, was released in the United Kingdom on October 24, 2014, and France on November 12, 2014. Magnolia Pictures will distribute the film in the United States. The film was released on all video on demand and digital stores on February 26, 2015, before a limited theatrical run on March 27, 2015.
The film earned £95,000 ($153,310) on its opening weekend in the United Kingdom, debuting at No. 19 at the UK box office. In its second week, the film dropped to finish 34th, grossing £11,645 from 37 screens. The movie ended its run with a total gross of $320,907 (£200,557)
The film made $1 million on video on demand in the United States before its theatrical release. The movie opened in 59 screens across the United States on March 20, 2015, and earned $100,090 for a 30th-place finish.
As of November 9, 2014, the film had a theatrical domestic gross of $100,090 and an international theatrical gross of $3,723,317 for a worldwide total of $3,823,407.
Serena has received negative reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, the film has a score of 17% based on 102 reviews with an average rating of 4.3 out of 10. The critical consensus states "Serena unites an impressive array of talent on either side of the cameras – then leaves viewers to wonder how it all went so wrong." The film also has a score of 35 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 29 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".
Andy Lea of Daily Star wrote in a positive review that, "It's another terrific performance from Lawrence, who almost manages to sell Serena's all too quick transformation from steely feminist to crazed femme fatale." Similarly, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian praised Lawrence, "Lawrence brings her A-game. She is passionate, impetuous and confident, with a tough determination to grab the brass ring that has been presented to her." Guy Lodge of Variety agreed, "The Stanwyck comparisons lavished upon Lawrence's Oscar-winning work in Silver Linings Playbook resurface here; she certainly looks every inch the Golden Age siren with her crimped vanilla locks and array of creamy silken sheaths that, true to vintage Hollywood form, never seem to get sullied in the wild." He added, "The star also makes good on her proven chemistry with Cooper, who acquits himself with stoic intelligence and a variable regional accent in an inscrutable role that, for its occasional flourishes of Clark Gable bravado, is equal parts hero, anti-hero and patsy."
In The Canberra Times, Jake Wilson praised Cooper, arguing, "Cooper once again proves his value as a leading man who approaches his roles like a character actor." However, he was more nuanced about the cinematography, suggesting it made "the setting slightly abstract, in the manner of her former mentor Lars von Trier – and the storytelling suffers from some sudden transitions and ill-explained twists." He concluded, "if this is not a perfect film it's an unusually haunting one."
Writing for the Toronto Star, Peter Howell criticized the film, suggesting the cinematography was "bland, unsteady and lacking in definition." In the Vancouver Sun, Katherine Monk argued that Bier was "probably trying to make a movie similar in feel to The Piano." However, she argued that the "whole national park subplot is confusing and blurs the blacks and whites required to generate sympathy, and every character suffers a similarly grey fate." She concluded, "by the end, we barely like anyone in this smoky landscape, let alone care about what happens to them." Writing for The Toronto Sun, Bruce Kirland stressed the setting of the Great Depression, suggesting it was, "the rural reflection of the film versions of The Great Gatsby, which are based on the classic 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald." However, he found the film boring.
In The Daily Telegraph, Robbie Collin praised Lawrence's acting at the expense of Cooper's, suggesting, "Lawrence comes out of it significantly better than Cooper," adding that she was "effectively Lady Macbeth in jodhpurs and a pussy-bow blouse." He concluded on a despondent note, writing "all [the film] amounts to is dead wood." Stephen Dalton of The Hollywood Reporter criticised the film, arguing, "it is difficult to believe a single word of it, still less to care about these relentlessly selfish and short-sighted characters." He praised Lawrence's and Cooper's acting, but suggested the problem lay in "Christopher Kyle's script, a string of jarring cliches and clunky attempts at subtext" and "Johan Soderqvist's cloying, imploring orchestral score."
In The Irish Times, Donald Clark praised the cinematography as " exquisite," but suggested that Lawrence's performance was "genuinely poor." He concluded, "Nobody is likely to see the [film]." Writing for The Independent, Geoffrey Macnab called it "a strangely dour and downbeat affair." He suggested it was reminiscent of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate. However, he criticized its "heavy-handed poetic symbolism" and "the guilt and self-loathing that its characters feel."