As I was watching the 1989 thriller-horror hybrid Dead Calm, I found myself wondering what I would do if I found myself in the same situation as Rae (Nicole Kidman)?
You’re stuck on a yacht that’s floating out in the middle of the ocean, trying to mentally recover from the death of your child in a horrific car accident. Your only company on the boat is your husband, an experienced sailor named John (Sam Neill), and a dog who always barks at the worst possible time. One night, you see another boat in the distance. The boat is obviously just drifting and appears as if it might be sinking. Suddenly, a frantic man in a row boat approaches your yachet. He says his name is Hughie (Billy Zane) and that he’s just escaped from the other boat. He says he’s a photographer. He says that everyone on the other boat is dead and he suggests that it was due to botulism. (In real life, I had to look that up to figure out what Hughie and John were talking about. However, in this scenario, you are Rae and you understand immediately.)
John has his doubts about Hughie’s story. John says that he is going to go over to the boat on his own and check things out. You nod and then watch as John rows away. Of course, Hughie was supposed to remain locked up below deck but that doesn’t last long. Soon, Hughie is free, he’s taken control of the yacht, and you are sailing away from both the other boat and John.
“Oh my God,” I thought as I watched, “what would I do if that happened to me!? I have no idea!”
However, I then thought about it some more and I realized that would never happen to me. I mean, let’s ignore the obvious fact that I’m terrified of drowning and would never be out in the middle of the ocean in the first place. I would like to think that my husband would be smart enough to say, “There’s no way I’m leaving my wife, who is still emotionally recovering from the death of our son, alone on a boat with a total stranger who might be totally insane!” And, if for some reason, my husband wasn’t that smart, I’d like to think that I would say, “Are you fucking kidding me? You’re not leaving me alone on a boat with a total stranger who might be totally insane!”
In the past, I’ve always defended horror movies where people do stupid things by arguing that people do stupid things in real life all the time. But Dead Calm really takes it a bit too far. Maybe I could buy it if John and Rae were the type of teenagers who inevitably end up working as a camp counselor at Camp Crystal Lake. But John is an officer in the Australian navy! And Rae is Nicole Kidman!
That said, if you can accept the stupidity of the film’s premise, Dead Calm is an effective and often scary thriller. There’s really only three characters in the entire film but Kidman, Neill, and Zane all give excellent performances, though their work is often undercut by the stupid things that the movie requires them to do. Once Rae is trapped on that boat with the Hughie, Rae has to both play up to Hughie’s delusions while also looking for a way to get him out of the way so she can turn the yacht around and go back to rescue John and most of these scenes only work because of Kidman’s fierce performance (though, again, that same fierceness makes it hard to believe that Rae would ever have acquiesced to John’s decision to leave the yacht in the first place). As for Zane, he is a bundle of nonstop, psychotic energy. When he loses control, he is genuinely frightening. This is probably the best Billy Zane performance that I’ve ever seen. Certainly, he’s far better here than he was in Titanic.
Still, you have to wonder why Rae didn’t just shoot Hughie with a harpoon or a flare gun whenever he turned her back to him. There’s even an extended sequence where Hughie dances on the deck, with no idea that Rae is watching him. Considering that, by this point, there was no doubt that Hughie was a crazy murderer, it seems like Rae could have just giving him a little push overboard. It seems like that could have saved everyone a lot of trouble…