WORDS BY REX REED
Black Sea is another underwater saga in the tradition of Das Boot, but instead of a war picture, it attempts to bring life through a periscope up to date. Times have changed. We no longer need submarines, so marine pilots are out of style, reduced to debilitating jobs working for salvage companies. After 30 years of service, a former Scottish Navy captain named Robinson (Jude Law) is sacked and drifting. His wife has already deserted him, taking his child with her, so he has nothing to lose when a shady financier offers him a chance to redeem his lost pride and prove himself in the water again on a dangerous search mission to retrieve a cache of $40-million in Nazi gold from a lost U-boat on the bottom of the Black Sea. His assigned vessel is a broken-down Russian sub in mothballs, his nine-man crew is half-Russian, half-British, and all killers. Since they are all promised an equal split of the profits, it doesn’t take long for this briny gang of ruthless rogues to realize that the fewer men are left alive, the more shares they can keep for themselves. Let the mayhem begin.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald (Last King of Scotland), it’s basically another tough genre workout that is all too familiar, with enough tension and violence to keep an audience alert if not riveted. But there’s nothing fresh about tension underwater. The first part of the movie is about the search—dark, wet, and life threatening—as the condemned tub sinks to the sea bed and the men seem doomed. The second part is about the greed, deception, mutiny, and homicide among the shipmates, and the captain’s efforts to unite the survivors, save their lives, repair the exploding engines, and reach the lifeboats without being discovered by the Russian Navy, which also wants the gold. Before the end, the decks run red.
Black Sea doesn’t look like it was much fun to make. The actors are half-drowned most of the time, gasping for breath. Dennis Kelly’s screenplay consists of too much dialogue about pistons and drive shafts. Like most submarine movies, most of it takes place in red light, but it never reaches the classic status of Das Boot or even the old Clark Gable-Burt Lancaster thriller Run Silent, Run Deep. Jude Law, grizzled and balding, looks like a mossy old version of his former self. As the only American on board, Scoot McNairy is a terrifically spineless, whining mouthpiece for the adventurer who financed the journey and Ben Mendelsohn is a terrifying underwater psycho. The whole thing adds up to a watery grave of claustrophobia—but that can be pretty terrifying, too.
Jude Law in Black Sea
Before her breakthrough, career-enhancing performance in Cake, Jennifer Aniston was the prettiest and most versatile alumnus of Friends, but to the hard-edged worker bees in the Hollywood hive, she’s always been respected but unrewarded—just another drone, but never a queen. With Cake, she finally wears a crown, and makes real honey. In this impressive film, directed by Daniel Barnz from a screenplay he selected from a screenwriting competition, the creamed and pampered beauty, now in her mid-40s, totally stripped herself of her usual glamorized movie star trimmings, without a shred of makeup, hair style, or any of the designer lotions and youth creams she peddles in TV commercials, to tackle the hardscrabble role of a tortured woman named Claire, suffering from pain, drug addiction, and visible self-abuse. Wearing nothing but Chapstick, she shows wrinkles in the chin, circles under the eyes, and a worn-out mask of physical despair. Overweight, with stringy brown hair and clogged pores, wearing shapeless off-the-rack discount clothes, she is clearly a wreck with no interest in self-improvement, bearing the scars of emotional emptiness. In her nondescript Los Angeles ranch-style bungalow, she shuns the sunlight, sleeps all day, wolfs down painkillers, and inflicts a cruel, demanding bitchery on everyone she knows, including a long-suffering, sympathetic, and loyal housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) who drives her across the Mexican border to buy illegal drugs which she hides in a statue of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost and hopeless causes, and an ex-husband (Chris Messina) who threw in the towel and left her long ago. It takes nearly an hour and a half before we learn the reasons for her unrelenting angst, and sometimes the wait grows tiresome. But the sheer courage of Ms. Aniston grows on you, like a lichen. So does the movie.
In her chronic pain support workshop, Claire becomes obsessed with the suicide of a fellow member of the group (Anna Kendrick) to the point of re-tracing her steps on the overpass above the 105 freeway where she jumped. Then she inserts herself into the lives of the woman’s husband (Sam Worthington) and son, befriending them out of mutual loneliness fueled by a warped sense of purpose. It’s an odd, compelling study in depression and desperation, leavened by a star turn by Ms. Aniston that makes Claire a poignant and sympathetic character despite her numbing self-indulgence. Guided by director Barnz’s compassionate direction, she submerges herself so completely into the role that it doesn’t even seem to be her face, her skin, her body, or even her voice.
Depression is a tricky subject for a movie aimed at a target audience that is depressed enough already. But this one justifies its challenges to feel-good escapism through honesty and integrity. In the end, when Claire finally takes her first steps toward recovery and redemption, you may want to cheer.