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Forgotten Films Archive: ‘Dead Calm’ (1989), and The Gleeful Psychosis of Billy Zane

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Dead Calm introduced American audiences – at least the few who saw it back in 1989 – to blossoming superstar Nicole Kidman. The Aussie actress had been making her way in film and television Down Under for a few years, but Philip Noyce’s terrific, self-contained sea thriller brought her red locks and cold gaze stateside for the first time. The rest is history.

But, Dead Calm also showed us something we’ve unfortunately never quite seen enough of, and that is the animal magnetism and undeniable star power of Billy Zane. For whatever reason, though he’s had his fair share of good roles, Zane has never been the star he should have been after devouring the screen and stealing the show from Kidman and Sam Neill almost three decades ago. Always a little theatrical, impeccably handsome, most of the time barely masking a manic psychosis just under the surface, Billy Zane should have become a superstar. But he never did… not really.

At least we’ll always have Dead Calm.

Noyce’s film takes the most expansive thing our world has to offer, the ocean, and zeroes in on an intimate, claustrophobic thriller dripping with psychosexual energy. Tragedy underlines the story: Rae (Kidman) and her husband, John (Neill), lose their child in a car accident in the prologue, spurring them to set sail and gather themselves in isolation. In the expansive nothingness of the sea, this husband and wife try and find the pieces of their lives and put them back together. It is here where they see another ship, drifting lifelessly in the current.

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After being surrounded by nothing but water, the functionality of modern society entirely out of reach, seeing another vessel drifting closer to Rae and John is all the film needs to kickstart the tension. They’re still on earth, but as the two ships drift closer to one another, they may as well be in outer space.

Dead Calm

A man, Hughie (Zane), is rowing a lifeboat away from the ship. Frantically. He arrives on Rae and John’s boat and tells a story of food poisoning and death aboard his schooner, which is steadily sinking. He seems desperate and he sells his story, convincing enough to John at least, who rows over to the boat himself to check for any survivors. Not long after John leaves, however, it’s clear Hughie is not an innocent survivor, but the source of all the death aboard the doomed vessel. And now he has Rae.

And so the rest of the film is partly a chase as John tries frantically to get back to his captive wife, and partly a sexually-charged game of cat and mouse between Rae and Hughie. Is Rae playing the twitchy, unhinged madman, exploiting his hormones in order to get free of him? Or has she given in to her worst instincts? Has her grief redirected her to the arms of a psychopath? The plot of Terry Hayes’ screenplay, based on the novel from Charles Williams, is all anxiety and manic energy, a percolating bit of high seas pulp which pushes through its own shortcomings with such vigor that they’re easy to overlook.

There are some silly moments in Dead Calm – namely the fact John leaves his wife with Hughie to investigate a sinking ship – but this exists simply to move the story along. Had John never gone to the other vessel, well, we wouldn’t have a movie. And then there’s the ending (SPOILER: Hughie’s death scene, where he catches a flair right in the kisser), which some may scoff at. Personally, I think it works and it’s the perfect wacko ending to a film which grew increasingly unhinged as its characters grew more desperate.

And at the center of it all is the wonderfully next-level crazy turn from Billy Zane. His nervous energy owns the screen, and he keeps both Rae and the audience on their toes. Dead Calm could have collapsed under illogical choices and convention; it is the work of Billy Zane, forever underrated, that keeps the picture afloat.

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Forgotten Films Archive:

Shoot to Kill (1988)

Judgment Night (1993)

Bringing Out the Dead (1998)

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Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry is the managing editor for Monkeys Fighting Robots. The Dalai Lama once told him when he dies he will receive total consciousness. So he's got that going for him... Which is nice.

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