Kevin Macdonald more often dons the cap of documentarian than fiction filmmaker, and his Black Sea shows it. He brings a grimy, festering, “you are there” realism to this lean, efficient work. This story of a deep, dark sea revealing mankind’s darker heart puts Jude Law in the position of a beleaguered, disgruntled, Scottish workaday ship captain unceremoniously fired from his day job. He takes it upon himself to seek a personal form of revenge and get rich quick in a damp, deep excursion into the crumpled, blistered quarters of a worn out submarine, surrounding himself with a crew of unsavory, functional types and the hopes and dreams of a treasure of gold deep within the hard-lost depths of the Black Sea. Troubles abound, from tension within the men, to physical difficulties in actually procuring the gold, to corporate lies and deceit, but all of them filter through and debate with the darkest secret of all: man’s worst enemy in his own unquiet self. If it sounds like a story out of the rough-and-tumble mid-’60s, a Sam (Fuller or Peckinpah, take your pick) or John Sturges dude-picaresque “picture” (as opposed to a film or a movie), you’d be right. It’s an ode to a style of film lost today, a sort of rivetingly adult, high-concept entertainment as scruffy and chiseled as a machine after a hard day’s work, and, for what its worth, it earns the comparison.
Clearly more enamored with the under-the-water aspects of the film, Macdonald directs the opening fifteen minutes and the closing five with a blunt quality that throws us into the story and brutally cuts at the end. The end result is a barn-storming work of claustrophobic immediacy, a classically down-and-dirty tightness befitting a film that would have been more at home in the ’60s than in the 2010s. We get into the meat of the sub action as quickly as humanly possible, moving us through the basics of the set up and exposition with a breathtaking expediency and shuffle forward that is palpably exciting. The opening and closing of the film are so sharply edited, they ought to be the highlights of the film, except of course, they are sharply edited for a reason, and this is that the majority of the film, the in-sub action, is superbly crisp and efficient as well.
Crisp and efficient, except in one, admittedly surprising, regard: digital cinematography. Not that it is surprising that digital cinematography affects the quality of a film, for that it almost always does. But digital cinematography enhancing a film, and a small film at that, now that is something unexpected. Presumably utilized to lower the film’s budget, Macdonald and cinematographer Christopher Ross turn it into an artistic calling card and a statement to its queasy potency. Pushing everything up into the foreground and deliberately coating the film in an ugly wax, it gives the submarine a certain sickly, grotesque presence that fits the action enormously well.
The digital cinematography also allows the two the lee-way to fetishize rack shots, giving even mundane shot selections an unholy sickness and urgency where-in whichever character not speaking is fazed out to the point where they almost resemble a collection of abstract pixels. It’s a wonderful exploitation of the computerized, pixellated nature of digital cinematography, and a gruesome utilization of it to approximate the act of fading into and out of consciousness. Or half watching a conversation and paying attention only to one particular side, just as so many of the combative, restless men on the sub do, to the point where the rest of the material on the screen fades to abstract background.
Beyond this, the cinematography almost transforms the submarine into a haunted horror-show of hazy, abstract color that hides any sense of shadow (a well-known criticism of the form, here rendered a plus). The end effect is two-fold: without shadows, nothing can be hidden from us, and the colors lose a degree of their nuanced shading to retain a certain purity of look that appears almost maddening on screen. Many shots, even a majority of the shots, highlight characters in a sickly glow, positioning them in front of or next to or around or behind a blood-red or sickly-yellow hue that coats them in an almost midnight-movie grime. The effect is to give us a submarine that isn’t so much realistic as the external manifestation of the sweaty indifference the men have to their journey, and the tired malaise of fear and greed that threatens to swallow them up the further along their path they continue.
Pastiches to various thrillers and moral parables abound, with a particular indebtedness to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre almost unmistakable. At least one sequence (an underwater walk where a selection of characters attempt to carry the gold back to their sub without falling into a deep, dark cavernous limbo) visually quotes The Wages of Fear. Both classic works of genre cinema use visual iconography to weigh down on and invade the minds of men ready to grow sick with the insanity of greed. Occasionally, when that digital cinematography coats the gold in a waxy, high-contrast sheen to really capture the way the substance looks in the minds of men rather than how it exists in reality, Black Sea gets us well along the way to the spirit of those older films. Surely, it doesn’t quite ever reach these uncomfortable heights, owing partially to a less-than-watertight script and even more-so to the fact that it is much more assured as a bone-dry thriller than as a morality play about the dark hearts of men.
Nevertheless, if there isn’t much going on in the depths under the hull, and the ship arguably isn’t being put to the best use it could be, the machine-work is excellent, and its sturdy and ready to rattle and hum along with dogged persistence and a surprising aesthetic charisma. It’s like an engineer moonlighting as a conceptual artist, or a conceptual artist masquerading as an engineer and discovering an unexpected talent. Less art and more surprisingly arty craft, it proves an unexpectedly potent use for digital cinematography, and for that alone, it deserves to be seen for anyone invested in the film vs digital argument. For the droves of would-be viewers who don’t even realize one of the biggest debates in the history of film is currently, quietly burning on and on, it’s a pretty damn fine submarine thriller. For anyone who appreciates a sub-genre many thought lost to the briny deep, that’s more than enough. It’s classical filmmaking with an unexpected kick of new technology, and one should never complain about that.