In 1947, adventurer Thor Heyerdahl undertook his famous Kon-Tiki expedition with the intent of proving that ancient peoples were capable of sea voyages and thus established contact between very different cultures. It’s a fascinating topic on which to build a movie, but if 2016’s The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea intends to use Heyerdahl’s voyage as the basis for a fable about disparate people finding each other… well, it gets blown drastically off course.
On the same day that he signs a big deal to redesign the New Orleans waterfront, introverted architect Henry (Jason Sudeikis) also loses his pregnant wife Penny (Jessica Biel) to a car crash. Henry had the good fortune, however, of being married to a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who would buy him purple shoes for his big meetings and kick his ass at Scrabble. What ends up being their final conversation—in which she suggests that he “help out” a teen runaway rooting in their trash—gives him purpose after her death, as he turns his attention from grieving his quirky wife to taking an equally quirky girl under his wing.
That’s Millie (Maisie Williams), who’s fiercely protective of her collected trash, as it will form the basis of a raft that she intends to use for sailing across the Atlantic and toward the Azores islands. Williams, saddled with an unfortunate and heavy ‘Nawlins accent, narrates the film like someone trying to read storm patterns—detached, speaking in metaphor. The only guidance she does have is a travel diary that has washed up on shore with the opening note of If you find this, I’m probably screwed. Then again, the characters on land aren’t doing much better.
By the time that Henry snaps out of his grieving daze—though to be honest, Sudeikis seems to be stumbling around the movie even before Penny’s demise—and Millie lets down enough of her guard to accept his help, they’re constructing a raft made of every possible indie-movie cliché: gauzy flashbacks, dead/abandoned parents, a perky score (thanks to Justin Timberlake), and contrived twists that seem to have come from Nicholas Sparks’ wastebasket.
Rounding out their ragtag team is a comic-relief duo made up of a black man who answers to the nickname “Dumbass” (Orlando Jones) and his unintelligible Creole-speaking buddy Pascal (Richard Robichaux). The presence of Millie’s drunken uncle and Henry’s nagging mother-in-law (Mary Steenburgen, underused) are meant to complicate things, but they mostly flit around on the fringes of the story.
Penny lives on in sappy flashbacks that do nothing to flesh out her character, only providing more MPDG moments (in a similarly overdone ‘Nawlins accent) and giving Henry the opportunity to refer to both her and Millie as “hurricanes.” Is it really the best idea to compare women to hurricanes in a movie set in New Orleans?
Furthermore, there’s something uncomfortable about a film whose subplot involves a bunch of white people talking about how to rebuild New Orleans (with veiled mentions to Hurricane Katrina, though it’s never directly addressed), while the movie’s sole black character is named Dumbass. And look, I’ll give director Bill Purple and co-writer Robbie Pickering some credit that there is a fascinating imagery in the notion of ripping up one’s house (very rooted) to turn it into a raft (very much not-rooted)—but any key visuals are weighed down by all the manufactured drama.
By the way, in all of this, no one stops to consider how dark it is that a widower is helping an orphan build a raft so she can sail to her probable doom. There’s a reason that travel diary keeps washing up ashore, yet no one thinks about this. Yes, there’s the constant metaphor about how a raft can break apart but still float… but how about the person clinging to it?
“Legend has it that fairy tales start with normal people,” Millie’s narration opens the film with (I’m paraphrasing). And while we don’t need the subjects of fables to themselves be fabulous, you can’t help but wish that the filmmakers had found more sketched in and more authentically human people to focus on.