Dead Calm (1989)

Recent previews of Hugh Jackman’s upcoming P.T. Barnum film, in which his wife will be played by Michelle Williams, bothered me in the pit of my stomach. The fact that actors age but their love interests are not allowed to is not news, but this is the first time that it’s happened between someone who I consider to be of “my generation” (Williams is six years older than I am, but she’ll always be Jen on Dawson’s Creek to me) and someone I consider to be of the generation that came before (Jackman is 12 years older than Williams and was, in my mind, an “adult” in the X-Men movies when Williams was still “my age” or thereabouts). Of course, this never really bothered me when I was a kid watching Dead Calm, in which leads Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman (playing his wife) are a staggering twenty years apart (Kidman even turned 20 during production!), likely because they were always from the “before” generation. Looking back now, it’s a little distracting, but that doesn’t make the film any less thrilling, creepy, and well-done.

The film opens at Christmas, when Australian Naval Officer John Ingram (Neill) detrains to find that his wife and child are not present on the platform to welcome him home. He is approached by two police officers, who take him to see his wife Rae (Kidman) in the hospital, where she is recovering from a traffic collision that took the life of their toddler son. Some time later, John has taken Rae out on their yacht, the Saracen, to recover, although she is still haunted by the image of their son as he flew through the windshield. Their calm life at sea is disrupted by the arrival of Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane in the role that won him international attention), who rows straight into their vessel from a ship he claims is sinking and unable to be salvaged, not to mention full of the bodies of his shipmates who have died of botulism. Suspicious of this story, John goes to investigate, only to discover a scene that implies Hughie may be lying, an inference that is backed up when Hughie awakes and absconds with both the Saracen and Rae, leaving the bereaved woman to fend off the madman.

This is a taut movie, full of lingering shots of the vast and empty ocean that serve to demonstrate the depth of Rae’s isolation as she is trapped aboard the Saracen and her attempts to retake the ship in order to rescue John, who is trapped aboard the other sinking vessel. John, too, must fight to keep the ship on which he is trapped afloat long enough for his wife to free herself from Hughie’s machinations and save her husband from drowning. For the first 80% of the film, all of the sound is completely diagetic: the beeping of the radar, the lapping of waves against the hull, the gentle lull of ocean winds; it’s only when John is trapped in a failing air pocket that the standard orchestral score that audiences associate with thrillers comes into play.

There’s also a great inversion of the “damsel in distress” motif that was the de facto modus operandi of thrillers of the time (and before, and, to an extent, since). Rae is no pushover, as she has to use her feminine wiles to gain his trust, and never for a moment does she let her fear overwhelm either her survival instincts or her devotion to rescuing her husband. The damsel of the film is technically John, as he is the one who is in need of rescue, although he is more active in his attempts to save himself than this type of character usually is, as he works bilge pumps and restores engine operations in order to stay alive. The choice to show the couple as a pair of loving, respecting survivors of a horrific accident–we actually see their son fly through the air after the collision, which is followed by more subtle horror as the police tell John that the boy survived the impact but died before the paramedics arrived–contrasts the “dead calm” of the ocean and the Ingrams with the trauma at the beginning of the first act.

The choice to cast Zane as the antagonist was also a stroke of genius, as his pretty boy looks and his apparent irrational behavior upon the event of his “rescue” make him seem initially sympathetic. Hughie seems more like a victim of sunsickness, malnutrition, and the survivor of a traumatic incident (like the Ingrams), until he reveals his true colors. His soft performance serves as a strong contrast to his violence once it erupts, and even after he shows his true colors, he’s so cute and harmless-looking with his dark lashes and puppy dog eyes that his spiral out of control is believable but even more unsettling. This is the role that garnered him great acclaim, and it’s not difficult to see why. Kidman is also a breakout here, and she’s phenomenal. Although he’s never gone on to have as much success in his career as Kidman, at least he was only typecast as “sinister hunk on a sinking ship” rather than marrying one (if we count SeaOrg). Aside from a last-minute fakeout that this movie should be better than, this is definitely one to catch.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

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One thought on “Dead Calm (1989)

  1. Pingback: Dead Calm (1989) – state street press

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