Except for a brief prologue, Dead Calm is set completely at sea, in the middle of the absolutely featureless ocean of the South Pacific. This gives it a strong focus, an elemental feeling, a location stripped of everything but the essentials.
An experienced sailor (Sam Neill, recently seen as Meryl Streep’s husband in A Cry in the Dark) and his wife (Nicole Kidman) are sailing their large, handsome sailboat across the South Pacific. One day they come across another sailboat drifting in the distance, and a frenetic man (Billy Zane) paddling a dinghy in their direction.
Brought aboard, this man says that everyone else on his boat has died horribly of botulism, and that his vessel is slowly sinking. He refuses to go back. So Neill rows the dinghy across to take a look. While he’s on the sinking boat, the stranger overpowers the wife and steers the two of them away from the stranded Neill.
The rest of the movie, set over the course of a single long day, has Neill desperately trying to fire up the dead engines and make pursuit, while his wife investigates ways of subduing the brutish intruder and turning the boat around.
It’s a devilishly clever situation, based on a novel by Charles Williams. This film, Australian made, is directed by Philip Noyce, who made a lovely Aussie movie called Newsfront about a decade ago. Dead Calm is a world away from that, but Noyce draws every ounce of suspense out of the situation with nary a slack moment once the couple is out to sea. And this is as much a psychological study as it is a thriller; the dark, violent stranger is the personification of the anxiety and troubles of the marriage.
One of the things I like most about Dead Calm is that it plays by the rules. You’re given all the important information early on, with no cheap surprises later. And the characters don’t do stupid things. The kidnapped wife, for instance, is no simpering victim (as in too many movie thrillers). She’s entirely capable and crafty, and tries a number of different schemes to outfox her stronger opponent.
The novel had actually been filmed once before, by none other than the great Orson Welles, who shot a version entirely at sea in the late 1960s with himself, Jeanne Moreau, and Laurence Harvey. I’ve seen bits of the never-completed film, and it would have been a different kettle of fish, to be sure; more frenzied and perverse than this movie.
But this film serves very effectively. It provides some nice (and some nasty) thrills, and a lingering feeling as disturbing as an approaching squall seen over an expanse of smooth, becalmed water.
First published in the Herald, April 6, 1989
The movie served as a pretty good audition piece for all concerned. From here Kidman’s next stop was Days of Thunder and everything that came after that. Noyce went on to his curious directing career, with its absolute duds mixed in with very professional work. And then there’s Zane: how do his choices come about, exactly?