John and Rae are stuck on their sailboat in a dead calm.
Dead Calm has been sold over the last 21 years as a psycho thriller and as an erotic thriller, but really it is a haunting and atmospheric suspense film. John (Sam Neill), a navy man, comes home to find that his wife Rae (Nicole Kidman) is in a hospital and his infant son is dead. Years later, the fatal crash still haunts her, even while the couple are vacationing at sea with their adorable doggie Ben. For 32 days, there’s been a dead calm (i.e., no wind) and they’ve been stationed in the middle of the vast wet nowhere. The fact that they’re really nowhere, since no location is specified, gives the film an early sense of isolation. We already feel some despair when the two encounter a black schooner.
Hughie cowers in a corner after climbing aboard John and Rae’s sailboat.
John and Rae look out and see a lone figure desperately racing toward them. He gets to their boat, climbs aboard and races inside to cower in a corner. The man identifies himself as Hughie (Billy Zane). He explains that everyone aboard his boat has died of maybe botulism and the boat itself is sinking. They put him to sleep. The man’s clearly unhinged and something about Hughie’s story doesn’t sound right to John. He goes out to investigate. While he’s gone, Hughie wakes up. By the time John has discovered that everyone aboard was murdered, Hughie was awoken and attacked Rae. Hughie takes control of the ship and races away, leaving John with the sinking ship of horrors. While John tackles his own obstacles in futilely repairing the ship, with some success, Rae is left alone with Hughie. Hughie is very specifically insane and irrational. He’s clearly domineering, the kind of person who, if told he’s wrong, will very loudly and angrily tell you all the ways he’s inherently right. On top of that, he’s violently unstable. It’s up to Rae to subdue him and get back to her husband.
Rae finally succeeds in subduing Hughie with drugs and rope.
Rae tries to toss the engine key, but Ben the Doggie retrieves it. She tries to distract him with seduction to get to the shotgun. She runs out of time, though. After sex, she drugs him with her sedatives and finally assembles the shotgun. She later gets hold of the spear gun. Hughie was, at first, merely unstable. He could be calmed some, if not reasoned with. (He thinks everyone’s out to get him, even though there is now literally no one in their world except for Rae.) Now, drugged and facing an armed opponent he becomes the kind of insane where he can plow through wood doors like they’re made of Balsa. Rae succeeds, though, shooting Hughie and tossing him overboard onto a raft (which is generous). She gets to her husband, who has valiantly kept alive, finding him in the dark ocean night. Their ordeal is done. It’s a satisfying ending. But, we’re given an extra ending where Hughie climbs back aboard, tries to strangle Rae and John shoots a flare into his head. It’s silly, but maybe the producers thought audiences would be irate if the man didn’t confront and take down the villain.
Rae tosses Hughie overboard onto a pop-up raft.
Dead Calm holds up in a way that few films of this genre can by being timeless and without place. The only thing dating the film are the actors. Their performances are excellent, but they went on to bigger films like Jurassic Park, Batman Forever and Titanic. (Of course, Nicole Kidman became less redhead and less Australian over time, so it’s like watching an entirely different person.) The film also depends on many, many coincidences. Our hero is a master seaman. Our heroine has powerful sedatives. The dog does tricks. Our villain is easily distracted, just enough to give our heroine an advantage. A single lightning strike knocks over a post that blocks a door that traps our hero in a sinking ship. It’s the accomplishment of writer Terry Hayes that these never feel like contrivances, and to director Phillip Noyce that these points all flow naturally and never impede on a precisely calibrated atmosphere. Dead Calm transcends any minor flaw to continuing being an effective and engaging film.
John and Rae are happily reunited again.
Hughie is sitting on the mast, having taken over the ship.
Throughout the film Hughie wears black low cut chucks to show he’s young, kinetic and athletic (perhaps also, American). (at ~48:18) Hughie lounges on the mast, a symbol of both his dominant position and his capricious insanity.
In a rage, Hughie begins kicking down the door.
(at ~1:18:00) Having been pushed over the edge, Hughie gains insanely (pun) super-strength and kicks down a strong wood door. The chucks probably helped. (I bet he’d have never escaped wearing deck shoes!)
The camera focuses on Hughie’s chucks.
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