Sub Mission
By Nick Pinkerton

Black Sea
Dir. Kevin Macdonald, U.K., Focus Features

The fiction features that Kevin Macdonald has made since his 2003 breakout documentary Touching the Void certainly sound good. A gristly tale of inside-the-D.C. Beltway skullduggery? Great, can’t wait! A lone centurion deep behind Hadrian’s Wall, fighting his way back to “civilization” through hordes of bloodthirsty Picts? Sure! A teen romance unfolding against the backdrop of an England on the brink of apocalypse? Heck, why not! And yet these films—2009’s State of Play, 2011’s The Eagle, and 2013’s Life in a Day, respectively—are works that conspicuously fail to live on in the imagination after being seen. At this point, a good name for a retrospective of Macdonald’s work might be “Almost, Not Quite.”

Black Sea, Macdonald’s latest, is no outlier. It comes with a premise that’s well-nigh irresistible to fans of the adventure movie: With the backing of a mysterious financier, a veteran crew of unemployed English and Russian-speaking seamen who’ve been thrown on the scrap heap by their respective nations and navies buy a decommissioned rust-bucket tin can sub from a ship graveyard in Sevastopol and go a-questing for a sunken U-boat filled with Nazi gold which has been resting on the bottom of the Black Sea for some seventy-five years.

The leader of this ragtag band is a man called Robinson. He has just been fired from his job with a maritime salvage firm. He is divorced, and haunted by the memory of his failed marriage. (Cue “day at the beach” flashbacks.) His twelve-year-old is being raised by another man who happens to be comfortably well-off, and he sees this shot at a big payday as his last best chance to regain some self-respect. Robinson is played by Jude Law, an actor of uncommon talent who has proven himself uncommonly bad at curating his career, and who has lately been retooling himself as a character actor, often the best thing in otherwise dicey movies. (I am thinking particularly to his Alexei Karenin in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina.) Law is dressed down here to play a working-class Scotsman, and so makes no attempt to disguise his widow’s peak, which is nearing Face Value–era Phil Collins stage. He is unremittingly dour, and looks considerably bulkier than we are used to seeing. Macdonald often shoots Law from behind, filling the frame with his star’s shoulder span to commanding effect. Law has picked up his director’s Scots accent with ease, and at no point does he falter under it or ham up his “dinnas” and “doons.”

The first act of Black Sea, which takes place on dry land, is so mussed-up with over-coverage—the camera is forever butting into scenes from awkward angles—that you can’t imagine it’s headed anywhere worth going, though I am happy to report that the grass is greener than Greengrass here. The movie settles into place as soon as the sub dives, as Macdonald employs a smooth traveling shot for the first time, curling through the vessel and uniting the crew as one. This suggests a willful matching of style and theme for, as one veteran salt (Michael Smiley) explains to a 17-year-old just getting his sea legs (Bobby Schofield), old sailors are “penguins,” elegant in the water, but on dry land, nothing but “wee waddling pricks.”

This line, and the screenplay, are courtesy of Dennis Kelly, who from here on keeps things moving from incident to incident, and bad to worse, at a brisk clip. Animosity between the English speakers and the Ruskies comes to a head in a literal explosion. The sub craps out, and sputters to rest on a sandbar deep beneath the waterline. With oxygen at a premium and the clock ticking, a team of three divers is charged with crossing the murky, treacherous sea floor in search of the U-boat gold, which they then must transport across precarious and scarcely visible terrain. Finally, once every last double-cross has been outed, it remains for Robinson and his depleted crew to maneuver the sub through a treacherous undersea canyon, with scarcely any margin for error.

Working with such a succession of made-to-order suspense scenes, Macdonald has considerably more leeway than his protagonist, and his handling of these sequences is consistently capable, if never reaching gut-churning intensity. Despite initial flashes of clarity intended to differentiate the film’s firm-footed sea sections from the seasick landlubber prelude, Macdonald tends to fall back on distilling his set pieces into fragmentary subjective impressions—when the divers are wheeling an overloaded trolley of treasure across the sandbar with the help of a groaning electric winch, nothing is visible beyond what they can see through the feeble illumination of their flashlights, while the sounds of huffing breath and sucking footsteps lend the soundtrack an oppressive intimacy. Almost as soon as the anamorphic lens was added to the filmmaker’s toolkit it was put to use describing the interiors of submersibles in films like Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Sam Fuller’s Hell and High Water (both 1954). Black Sea, accordingly, is composed for widescreen by DP Christopher Ross (for what is apparently his first film on such a scale), though the intention to sustain smothering atmosphere is dissipated by fretful cutting.

While Robinson retains control of a crew often on the brink of mutiny, a lust for gold gradually overtakes his better judgment. As his obsessive Ahab side takes over, Black Sea reveals a thematic debt to John Huston (and his literary antecedents), a director whose filmography is filled with men doomed by their reach exceeding their grasp—not only his Moby Dick (1956) but also films from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) to The Man Who Would Be King (1975). Macdonald has copped to the influence, for he has strong connections to classical filmmaking traditions—even blood connections. His grandfather on his mother’s side was the Hungarian-born screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, whose collaborations with Michael Powell are among the finest films ever shot on English soil. Early in his career Macdonald made a documentary about Pressburger, The Making of an Englishman, and has subsequently completed films about such diverse figures as Howard Hawks, Donald Cammell, and Errol Morris. (Black Sea, incidentally, is a UK production in full, shot in a tank at Pinewood Studios and a Cold War–era Soviet sub currently moored on the River Medway. Scoot McNairy is the cast’s lone American, and the film’s lone man without qualities, which I’m sure is just a coincidence.)

Rather than Powell-Pressburger’s distinctly Anglo-Saxon mysticism or Huston’s folk-grotesquerie, Macdonald’s style hews close to the currently accepted tenets of realism, a matter of busily plucking out isolated details, which achieves a strangely disconnected and flattening effect at odds with his evident dramatic mission, so that he’s driven to repeatedly redlining the soundtrack to spike tensions. The sub is a warren of dangerous-looking wiring, its crew a gallery of unlovely faces, but despite these surface aspects, Black Sea lacks the heft of experience, the sense of a vessel’s men working as a single unit in tandem, something that you get while watching the tank crew of last year’s Fury, a summarily dismissed WWII picture by David Ayer, himself a former submarine man who wrote the 2000 Jonathan Mostow war thriller U-571. Black Sea is a perfectly dutiful, professional piece of work, with several creditable performances, but it’s the sort of movie that doesn’t have quite enough of any one thing going for it that might eclipse its influences, or the movies it happens to remind you of. Undeniably it is “well-crafted,” that impenetrable descriptor which unites mediocrities as diverse as J. C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year and Steven Knight’s Locke, but is that all there is? I can’t see Macdonald ever making a film as flagrantly bad as some of Ayer’s worst, or one which flaunts its pulpiness as Mostow’s do, but the leaden competence which prevents one from ever being very bad doesn’t necessarily make one very good.