by MP Bartley
Phillip Noyce is a director who has been quietly working away in Hollywood, presenting solid, if unspectacular films that you will be familiar with, even if you don't recognise his name instantly. He garnered Michael Caine an Oscar nomination with The Quiet American, directed two Jack Ryan films (Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger) and the harrowing and devastating Rabbit-Proof Fence. Yes, he also directed The Saint and The Bone Collector, but his quality far outstrips his hiccups, and Dead Calm, one of his earlier flicks is a lean and charged thriller.Rae and John Ingram (Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill) are sailing across the pacific in their yacht in an effort to forgot a terrible car accident Rae was involved in. The solitude that they seek is ended however, when they encounter a survivor from a sea wreck floating nearby. Hughie (Billy Zane) claims he is the only one of his crew left alive, but John boards the remains of Hughie's ship to ascertain just what has happened. But isn't it always the case that the one person you meet in the middle of nowhere is a complete and utter fruitloop? Hughie quickly knocks Rae out, takes her prisoner onboard the yacht and sails away, leaving John trapped on the slowly and steadily sinking wreck.
"Two's company, three's a crowd. Especially when the extra one is a psycho."
The clever thing about 'Dead Calm' is that Noyce leaves this set-up as perfectly sketched as it is, and doesn't over-play his hand or overscale the drama. In the hands of a lesser director, Hughie would become a near-monster with a shield of invincibility, while John would be fending off sharks as the wreck sinks. But Noyce doesn't do that, realising that all the potential he needs is right there in the script.
It may seem relatively easy to outwit and outthink one person in principle, but when you're trapped on a small yacht, isolated in the middle of a vast ocean, it becomes a different matter entirely. Noyce uses this set-up to rap out a taut rhythm on our nerves, cutting between the smirking Hughie overpowering Rae with ease, and John's growing desperation as he faces up to drowning, with his wife in the hands of a murderer and rapist. It's a slowly boiling, nasty thriller that never shrieks or goes out of control. Even at the climax, when (minor spoiler coming) Hugie makes his inevitable return from the dead, it isn't an overblown moment as he survives fifteen different ways of death, instead, it's short, sharp and brutal. Much like the film itself.
Noyce plays it straight-faced, never descending into high melodrama and it works a treat, with Noyce even disregrading one of Hollywood's cardinal cliches and getting away with it (you'll know it when you see it).
The cast play it equally straight and effectively. Neill is as dependable as ever, capturing his rising panic well, while Zane makes for a great villain. Lithe and smug, he uses his brooding looks to superb effect, contrasting to Neill's slightly pudgy appearance, in effect becoming the man John wants to be and taking his place in the marriage set-up, with sleazy glee.
It's initially an amusing surprise to see a curvy Kidman, all cute freckles, frizzy hair and button nose, but she displays her early star wattage here. She doesn't oversell Rae's eventual courage in fighting back, making her a Sarah Connor-esque superwoman, but more born out of absolute desperation. It's a subtle difference, but Kidman pulls it off with aplomb.Just as Die Hard gave birth to a sub-genre of its own (Die Hard on a plane! Die Hard on a train!), so Dead Calm belongs to the sub-genre Psycho gave birth to (It's Psycho in a flat! Psycho as a cop!). But it's much, much better than that rather generic tag-line, it's a riveting thriller and a minor gem. And it's also far better than the other film where Billy Zane causes chaos on a boat.
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originally posted: 04/26/06 05:29:14