DEAD CALM B+
Australia USA (96 mi) 1989 ‘Scope d: Phillip Noyce
An early film of 22-year old Australian actress Nicole Kidman that made her an instant international star, viewed as a natural redhead before she bleached her hair blond, even speaking with an Australian accent, though it wasn’t until Gus van Sant’s To Die For (1995) that people realized what astonishing range she has as an actress. Perhaps more importantly, the film is adapted from a 1963 novel by Charles Williams about a couple enjoying a South Seas adventure on a yacht before they intercept a troubled ship in distress, retrieving the lone survivor, altering the course of nature, with none other than Orson Welles securing the rights to the film. Welles began shooting his own film entitled THE DEEP off the coast of former Yugoslavia in 1968, but like many Welles ventures at the time, couldn’t secure financing, where he was forced to abandon the project after the death of one of his leads, Laurence Harvey, in 1973. With the assistance of producer George Miller, using the profits obtained from his Mad Max Trilogy to build his own Australian Kings Cross studios, he was able to obtain the rights from Oja Kodar, the widow of Welles’s estate, so long as it was faithful to the original material and wasn’t a commercial Hollywood effort. However, the film bears a striking similarity to Roman Polanski’s first feature film, KNIFE IN THE WATER (1962), almost entirely taking place on a yacht, exploring the changing psychological dynamic between two men and a beautiful woman, ultimately reduced to a battle of wills, achieving an escalating sense of dread with the wide expanse of the open water becoming an oppressive Shakespearean force that threatens to engulf them all. Shooting off the coast of Hamilton Island in the Whitsunday Passage of the Great Barrier Reef, beautifully captured in all its glory by cinematographer Dean Semler, the film is a taut little thriller set in an exotic atmosphere of increasing paranoia and dread, becoming one of the better films shot at sea, thoroughly entertaining throughout, showing the deteriorating mental effects of being helplessly adrift, adding further instability from a claustrophobic world caving in on them, with an unusually provocative musical score by Graeme Revell, turning this into an astonishingly suspenseful drama.
In what amounts to a prologue, we are introduced to John Ingram (Sam Neill), an intelligently reserved career naval officer who is twenty years older than his lovely young wife Rae (Nicole Kidman). Both are in a state of grief following a car accident that results in the death of their young son, with Rae even more devastated, thinking she is to blame. Heading off on a seductive expedition to revive their deflated spirits, they seem to have regained a certain equilibrium, with Rae happily swimming in the sea, where this idyllic undertaking seems to have done wonders for them both. That is, until they eye a ship in obvious distress off in the distance, with the lone survivor rowing furiously towards their ship, where the stranger is Hughie (Billy Zane), supposedly the only survivor from an attack of food poisoning. As he sleeps off his troubles, Ingram makes a beeline for the deserted ship to investigate, immediately discovering a video log (exactly like they do on Star Trek episodes) that shows their newly arriving stranger is none other than a delusional madman who has killed everyone onboard his mystery ship. Returning as quickly as possible, he arrives too late, as the stranger has broken his way out of a locked room and taken command of his boat, sailing off in the opposite direction with his wife in tow, leaving Ingram with a broken down vessel and a flooded engine room, with the ship still taking on huge amounts of water, where his immediate goal is to reverse the water intake, pumping the flooded water out of the ship. Rae, meanwhile, is used as a battering ram by her unexpected guest, knocking her out completely, leaving her unconscious on the deck of her boat, alone with a maniac in charge, who pretends to be normal but loses his patience whenever someone disagrees with him, becoming violently angry, erupting with an unstoppable force, leaving her bewildered about what to do, as she can’t convince him to turn around. Told the ship is sinking, she’s afraid her husband has little chance of survival. The cat and mouse psychological game between the two is a bit like Clarice’s prison visits with Hannibal Lecter, as she knows if she sets him off this abominable man is capable of doing anything.
Meanwhile, back on the flooded ship, Ingram dutifully pumps out the flooded water, where his efforts to repair a sinking ship are remarkable, all done while witnessing a video stream of the former passengers as they squabble with Hughie, becoming especially volatile when they started to make fun of him and stop taking him seriously. The inside of the ship is a bloody mess, with the dead bodies still floating around, a constant reminder of what Rae is dealing with, as the man is clearly insane. Attempting to make radio contact with her husband, Rae is able to communicate with Ingram, but she can’t hear him, but can only hear button clicks, where they develop a language of one click means yes and two clicks means no. She’s relieved that he’s alive and his ship is not sinking, but her troubles are only just getting started, and her panicked guest is overly suspicious of everything she does. Still, she finds nautical weapons onboard, like a flare gun or harpoon arrows, keeping them concealed for the right moment, as he catches her in the act the first time, only to punch her to the floor, literally terrorizing her at will and seeming to like it, forcing her to accept he’s the man in charge, including raping her, where she’s forced to submit, while in the back of her mind she’s cleverly planning a counter maneuver. This contentious battle of wills takes on a life of its own, becoming the centerpiece of the film, yet Ingram is facing his own demons back on the other ship, where a storm has knocked out all power, becoming victimized again by surging water intake, trapped beneath the water in a flooded cabin, as both are fighting their own separate battles with death, where Hughie becomes Jack Nicholson with an ax in THE SHINING (1980), an out of control killing machine. Using a minimalist technique, the acting throughout is riveting, as Kidman’s mousy vulnerability is matched against a demonic monster, while Ingram is up against it in his own travails, beautifully interweaving both storylines, bringing them together by the end, where there is no rhyme or reason to explain why any of this is happening, but viewers are thrust into the middle of it, developing an obvious affinity for the woman in trouble, who is forced to maintain her wits against insurmountable odds, where there is no hope of any cavalry riding to the rescue. With a perfect title, the harrowing psychological mind games are especially well-played, with long wordless sequences, where you can almost hear viewers yelling at the screen for all the mistakes that are made, yet it’s a compelling adventure that delves into the heart of horror, offering plenty of extravagant eye-candy.