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Dead Calm Print E-mail
Tuesday, 14 December 1999

Dead Calm

Warner Bros. Home Video
MPAA rating: R
starring: Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman, Billy Zane
release year: 1989
film rating: Four Stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

This Australian thriller was released in the United States with little fanfare -- but to acclaim and a lot of jangled nerves. It helped establish Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman as boxoffice names (though it didn't do the same for Billy Zane), and brought director Philip Noyce to the U.S. Up here from Down Under, Noyce has alternated good with less-good movies; his first American-financed movie was the little-known BLIND FURY, with Rutger Hauer, but that was followed by PATRIOT GAMES. But then that was followed by SLIVER, a mediocre flop -- but he bounced back with CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER in 1994. Since then, his footing has been somewhat slippery, although 1999's THE BONE COLLECTOR wasn't bad. He's scheduled to direct the next in the Jack Ryan series.

Based on the novel of the same title by Charles Williams, DEAD CALM opens with a peculiar, unpleasant sequence centering on the accidental death of the young son of Aussie Naval officer John Ingram (Neill) and his younger wife Rae (Kidman). She feels responsible for the little boy's death -- a spectacular, horrifying scene -- so they spend some time on their beautiful sailboat, which is where the story really begins. The screenplay by Terry Hayes never refers again to the boy's death, nor does it seem to have any real effect on the lives of the Ingrams, making the opening scene essentially superfluous. (Surely it was a recurring motif in the novel.)

Then again, things get very busy for the Ingrams. After a few weeks of relaxing, their yacht quietly drifts in the dead calm of the title; John could use the boat's engines to move, but the peace and tranquility of the vast, featureless sea suits their mood.

Until, that is, they see a fire-damaged sloop not far away, and a man, Hughie Warriner (Zane), madly rows from the sloop to their boat. He's in a ferociously agitated state, virtually collapsing from nervous exhaustion. He tells an unlikely story of botulism killing everyone on the boat but him, so John rows over to the sloop to investigate.

Almost immediately, Hughie reveals his true character: he's a full-blown paranoid psychotic. Convinced that everyone on the sloop (from America) was out to get him, he killed them all -- and chopped up their bodies, and left the sloop to sink. He commandeers the Ingrams' yacht -- and Rae -- and sails away with John trapped on a sinking ship.

Noyce and Hayes set up the situation quickly, then ratchet up the tension scene by scene. But it's not an all-out onslaught on our nerves; they measure out the suspense very carefully, alternating teeth-clenching tension with more relaxed scenes. But since Rae cannot get away from Hughie, and John cannot reach her (for much of the film anwyay), there is the underlying hardrock suspense foundation under almost the entire film.

Not only is it taut and exciting throughout, it's gorgeous. Ignore the pan-and-scan version and watch only the letterboxed side of this disc. Dean Semler's cinematography is outstanding, and beautifully composed for wide screen, with many shots of the attractive yacht all alone on the wide, wide sea. The interiors, designed by Graham "Grace" Walker, are also gorgeous; Semler and Noyce easily swing between feelings of luxurious spaciousness and one of claustrophobic terror. This is one of the handsomest suspense movies ever made.

The cast is also very good. Sam Neill has a wide range as an actor -- consider "Reilly, Ace of Spies," his miniseries -- though he's rarely called upon to use it. Generally his roles are much like the one he has here: a decent man in an untenable situation (as with, say, JURASSIC PARK or A CRY IN THE DARK). But few actors embody decency as convincingly as Neill, undoubtedly why he was chosen here. Billy Zane is a shade over the top as the mad Hughie, but that's partly because he only pretends to be sane for a few minutes. The rest of the time, he's a lunatic alternating between power trips and anger. He's never become a star, most likely because he doesn't exhibit a strong personality that carries over from role to role.

Kidman is fine, her natural Aussie accent and all; she actually has the hardest role here, having to maintain our interest and sympathy at all times, even when being basically helpless against Hughie.

This isn't the first movie version of Williams' novel, but THE DEEP (not to be confused with the Nick Nolte movie of the same title) remains maddeningly unavailable. It was written and directed by no less than Orson Welles, who had a small role in the movie as well. The insane Hughie was played by Laurence Harvey, with Michael Bryant and Oja Kodar as the husband and wife; Jeanne Moreau had a role, but her character doesn't exist in DEAD CALM. It would be great fun to compare Welles' take on this suspenseful story with Noyce's.

This is another of Warner Bros. adequate-but-unadorned DVDs, though this film is particularly effective in the format. Noyce and his team play with the natural sounds of the ships in creatively spooky ways, underlying "normal" scenes with a sense of unease. These work very well on home theater systems, and you could surprise a roomful of friends with how tense and entertaining this movie is.

more details
sound format:
Dolby digital
aspect ratio(s):
"standard" version on one side, LBX on the other
special features: trailer, extra languages, scene selections
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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