Dead Calm is a 1989 psychological thriller about a young couple sailing the Pacific who encounter a troubled man on a damaged ship, leading to terrible danger on the open waters.
A thriller is a tricky genre, being one that relies not only on the characters to convince but a clever twist in the story to sell the premise. While not all thrillers need be psychological, those that rely on the mental game rather than a physical one tend to be the most effective, drawing us in on a more cerebral level. With director Philip Noyce‘s Dead Calm–based on a novel of the same same by Charles Williams–most of the film is a battle of wits, that pits a psychotic killer against a man and a woman already suffering from great loss. While it’s far stronger in the first half than the second, it is a brilliant piece of filmmaking as well a curious metaphorical journey of a couple in mourning.
With sparse dialogue and a scant, breathy score, the film depends entirely on the performances and Noyce’s direction to make it work, it’s strangely claustrophobic style, despite the great open Pacific ocean as setting, keeping it decidedly creepy. Epically long moments of silence are purposefully staged to create an almost uncomfortable level of unease as the story works to generate powerful contrasts with its characters. While not all of it always works, the symbolism does. And so does star in the making Nicole Kidman‘s mesmerizing performance.
THE STORY: After a tragic car accident injures Rae Ingram (Kidman) and leaves her young son dead, her husband John (Sam Neill), an officer in the Royal Australian Navy takes her to sea on their yacht to recover and reconnect. While weeks on the water have helped, Rae is still tormented by nightmares but feeling stronger. It is then when they spot a silhouette on the horizon, another yacht John recognizes as being in trouble.
Not long after, they notice a dinghy in the space between them, a shirtless man rowing frantically toward them. They help him aboard and the man, named Hughie (Billy Zane) tells of a tragedy where his boat is taking on water and the six others he was traveling with have perished from food poisoning. Naturally, John is suspicious, and when the exhausted Hughie crashes in the main bunk, John rows over to take a look. What he finds is a boat full of horror and a mistake he made in leaving his wife with Hughie.
Meanwhile, Hughie wakes and sees what is happening, kidnapping Rae and using the motor to head away, leaving a desperate John unsuccessfully chasing after in the dinghy. Now he’s got to somehow keep the other yacht from sinking and find a what to rescue his wife. Except … Rae’s not so much a damsel in distress but rather a warrior all her own. And she has her own style of fight.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: First of all, Noyce, who would later helm a couple of the Jack Ryan adventure films among other well-received titles, keeps this an usual and taunt little thriller, with tight piercing close-ups and character-driven action. With only the boats and the water as setting, he keeps things visually compelling, giving each yacht a personality all their own.
But it’s the performances that sell it. As the script is barely loaded at all, the film is practically a silent movie in terms of what is said, and what is said is pretty obviously dubbed in post, however, it’s all to great advantage. The story is about physicality even as Rae must use her wits to deal the much stronger Hughie. That’s the real appeal of the film, as Rae is given a number of seemingly obvious thriller clichés that lead no where, forcing her to stay alive by other measures. She is a woman with a far greater determination than Hughie expects, and she is far smarter as well.
A GREAT MOMENT: And this leads to a truly troubling moment when the highly-disturbed Hughie sinks further into madness, believing himself the master of the boat with the beautiful Rae as his willing partner. Smaller and unable to stop him with blunt force, Rae takes desperate steps in order to keep from falling victim.
She’s already made contact with Jon, via a clever method I won’t divulge, so she knows she must find a way to defeat the killer so she can spin the boat around and save her husband. Realizing Hughie’s fantasy is a way to get close, she makes a heartbreaking choice in using her body to lull him to a pacifying state and buy her some time. Given what we know about her fragile mental condition and the horrors she is already trying to work through, this moment of sexual trickery is especially hard to witness, and Kidman, whose career would take flight after the film’s release, is sensational as she takes to the part with hardened ferocity. Say what you will about the movie as a whole, its style and delivery surely divisive, Kidman is a force of nature in the film and delivers huge, and if you really want to go the extreme, watch this and then 2010’s Rabbit Hole, where she also plays a women who lost a child and compare characters.
THE TALLY: Dead Calm may lose a bit of credibility in its final few minutes, but it remains a uniquely constructed experience that, for the time, was almost groundbreaking, putting a woman in the role of savior, even if it needlessly steals a bit of her power in the last shot. Still, the film, which can read as an inspiring metaphorical triumph of a couple overcoming great tragedy, is a must for film fans taken by experimental directors and progressive cinematic styles. Taunt, gripping, and a head of its time, Dead Calm is great stuff. It’s what to watch.