Black Sea

Posted by Joel Copling on January 29, 2015

"Black Sea" is a thriller boiled down to its bare essentials: There is a group of desperate men who have fallen on hard times financially, there is a faction of those men who are simply greedy scoundrels willing to do anything for a bit of gold, there is the gold itself (nearly 185 million U.S. dollars of it, in fact), and there is the downed, Russian submarine in which it is currently sitting in the Black Sea. These are the compelling ingredients to a tense thriller about greedy, elemental, and machismo-driven conflicts. This is a movie that culls particular (and earned) tension from the language barrier between its English and Irish characters and the Russian ones.

There's a solid cast of names here, too. Jude Law plays Robinson, a marine salvage captain who has been laid off after more than thirty years at sea; the business is changing, one of his bosses says, and they just don't need as many physical bodies these days. Scoot McNairy is Daniels, a banking executive with whom Robinson meets a mysterious man who provides the men to do the aforementioned job; he is claustrophobic and thus mortified when told to accompany the men in the confined quarters of the submerged vehicle. Ben Mendelsohn is Fraser, who is constantly in between stints in jail and seems in this solely for the gold; he thinks nothing of the other men's safety and everything of the potential for the number of men to lessen by--*ahem*--expedited means.

There are other men, too. Tobin (Bobby Schofield) is the youngest of the crew at 18 years--a "virgin," as the superstitious foreigners aboard the ship refer to him, though he is expecting a child with a woman he barely knows. The other U.K. crew are played by the likes of David Threlfall, Karl Davies, Michael Smiley, and Branwell Donaghey, though we are only given the minimum of development for any of them. Even less individualistic are the Russians, who are basically interchangeable (with the possible exception of Grigoriy Dobrygin's Morozov, who is their translator). But depth-filled character writing isn't the business of "Black Sea," and that is not meant as a backhanded compliment.

Directed with gritty precision by Kevin Macdonald from a script by Dennis Kelly that favors psychological tension over three-dimensional growth, this is a style-as-substance movie all the way. From Christopher Ross's photography that--whether it be the grimy innards of the submarine or the endless death hues of the Black Sea itself--focuses on the faces of the actors to Justine Wright's editing (which builds armchair-gripping tension like it's the easiest thing in the world) to the score (with which composer Ilan Eshkeri complements the most stressful sequences rather than informing them) to the immaculate sound design and mix, "Black Sea" might be a boiled-down thriller at sea in the pulpy-if-not-exactly-complex vein of 2000's "U-571," but it does its job with craft and suspense. That's not an accomplishment easily dismissed.

Film Information

Jude Law (Capt. Robinson), Scoot McNairy (Daniels), Ben Mendelsohn (Fraser), Bobby Schofield (Tobin), David Threlfall (Peters), Karl Davies (Liam), Konstantin Khabenskiy (Blackie), Grigoriy Dobrygin (Morozov), Michael Smiley (Reynolds), Daniel Ryan (Kurstan), Branwell Donaghey (Gittens), Sergey Puskepalis (Zaytsev), Jodie Whittaker (Chrissy).

Directed by Kevin Macdonald and written by Dennis Kelly.

Rated R (language throughout, graphic images, violence).

115 minutes.

Released in select cities on January 23, 2015.