Occasionally stepping away from his documentary films Black Sea director Kevin Macdonald has always been at his best when dealing in high-stakes drama. Crucially, and Black Sea is no exception, he is a filmmaker who likes to put character driven thrills as the key focus to his work, be it The Last King of Scotland or State Of Play. Black Sea continues that trend and while swimming to gloomy depths of the human condition it does so with mixed results.
Recently laid off salvage expert Robinson (Jude Law) is resentful of his former wife (Jodie Whitaker) having sole custody of his son while living with her new man in the lap of luxury. So when he hears a rumour of a German U-Boat sitting on the bottom of the Black Sea stocked full of gold he approaches Daniels (Scott McNairy) to help him find an investor to fund an expedition to retrieve the prize. Assembling a rough-around-the-edges crew, which include loose cannon Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn) and salty seadog Reynolds (Michael Smiley), and borrowing a banged-up old Russian submarine the crew set out with the promise of an equal share split in whatever they retrieve. But it isn’t long before the promise of untold riches begins to wreak havoc in the confines of the submarine.
From the outset of Black Sea there is a sense of the blue-collar boys trying to make their way out of the depths of unemployment and stick it to the 1%. It is essentially The Full Monty with submarines and gold in place of stripping and laughs. But by putting an eclectic gang of mercenaries, think The Soggy Dirty Dozen or the rough-necks from Armageddon underwater, Macdonald and screenwriter Dennis Kelly conjure an interesting dynamic of the greed of man in a pressure cooker environment. The central conceit is simple; how far are you willing to plunge the depths of your moral fiber to get ahead in life?
It’s not going to rival the king of the submarine thriller genre Das Boot but Black Sea still manages to create a tension fuelled, claustrophobic chiller that works on almost every level. Watching the characters shift and re-think their priorities; mainly between living and potential riches, makes for a fascinating dissection of each man. Macdonald essentially puts a group of men into a confined space, throws in a couple of hand grenades, closes the hatch and waits for the bubbles and bodies to start rising to the surface.
Where it comes slightly unstuck is through certain plotting devices that, while necessary in reaching the end goal, feel heavy-handed and slightly illogical. Yes, it means that the ante is upped but at the cost of characters being undermined by what has gone before. If anything it feels over-thought rather than following the natural trajectory the premise, and indeed trailer, promised; the idea that each man realises the less men on the boat the bigger their share becomes.
Thankfully, a wonderfully diverse cast aids questionable character motives. The Russian contingent are asked to do little more than fill certain stereotypes but the English speaking crew are all on-song. Mendelsohn is easily one of current cinema’s most watchable and brilliant actors. His Fraser goes through the biggest changes in the story and while the character’s thinking needed a little more due diligence Mendelsohn remains both creepy and strangely sympathetic. McNairy is typically nervous and jittery, often the voice of reason despite being little more than cargo for much of the film’s running time. Jude Law meanwhile carries the film, achieving an impeccable Scottish accent, his Robinson is, like his name-sake, a man trapped on an island alone. Desperate to survive and yet also take home the gold it’s the struggle he goes through that often makes Black Sea immersive. For the first half he is determined, focused and the voice of reason but when events unfold Law brings a wonderful sense of driven conflict to the role.
At times the narrative struggles to keep its head above water but more often than not Black Sea pulls you kicking, gurgling and screaming into a dark and manipulative world that works in chilling your moral core.