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DEAD CALM, 1989
Classic Movie Reviews

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DEAD CALM MOVIE POSTER
Dead Calm (1989)
Classic Movie Review

Directed by: Phillip Noyce
Starring: Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane
by Mike Peters



SYNOPSIS:

After the death of their infant son, John (Sam Neill) and Rae (Nicole Kidman), decide to get away from it all. They choose to embark on a sea vacation where they will be alone for as long a time as they want. However, three weeks into their journey, they come across a seemingly deserted sail boat. As they study it from afar, they notice that a man is aggressively rowing towards them. Hughie (Billy Zane) comes aboard in a panic and declares that everyone on board that ship has died from food poisoning and that he is the only survivor. John, in disbelief, decides to search the boat himself and, in an instant, their journey becomes a nightmare in more ways then one.

Review:

Dead Calm is a simple film. Its story structure largely focuses on the exploits of three people, alone in the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Australia. The setting is an extremely vast and spacious landscape but yet the feelings exhibited throughout the film are of claustrophobia and loneliness. Phillip Noyce, the director, uses so many tight framing shots (especially when he frames Rae’s face) and stages so many scenes in small enclosed areas, that he is able to create a sense of uncomfortable dread throughout out most of the film.

Dead Calm is also a very lonely film. There are not too many scenes in which the audience witnesses these three characters together. Of course, there are scenes between Rae and Hughie, but for the most part, their isolation from one another highlights how truly cut off these characters are from society and themselves.

Adding to these feelings of isolation and loneliness is, perhaps, the most hauntingly written score ever penned for a feature film. The music is eerie, foreboding and creates such a sense of dread within the audience that at times, the film is extremely uncomfortable. Graeme Revell, in charge of the original music for the film, establishes such a sense of unease that it provides the film with an added element of depth. The overall impact of the film is heightened as a result of the score.

Australian cinema has always concerned itself with depictions of the masculine male. Masculinity is crucial to their films and the representation of it is largely enhanced by the male’s assimilation into the wilderness of the Australian backlands. In most Australian films, there is usually an ongoing theme of wilderness versus civilization. Men are typically associated with the wilderness while women are usually affiliated with civilization.

In Dead Calm, the sea stands in for the wilderness. In fact, there is no civilization to speak of. They have left it behind. For the first forty five minutes of the film, typical gender roles are reinforced. John, who is skeptical of Hughie’s story, decides to take on the role of active male and search the other boat himself, leaving Rae alone. At this point, Rae is an inactive participant. She is still greatly traumatized by her child’s death and thus acts as caregiver, providing Hughie with water when he arrives on board. When John visits the ship, he understands that the people on Hughie’s boat have not died as a result of food poisoning but rather have been murdered. In a desperate attempt to save Rae, John attempts to return to his boat. However, it is too late. Hughie realizes that John knows the truth and attempts to take control of the ship. Rae tries to fight Hughie off but he is too strong for her and she is knocked unconscious. Hughie turns the boat around and leaves John behind.

It is at this time that the typical gender roles become reversed. Rae must now become an active participant, if she is to have any chance of saving her husband. John, on the other hand, has now become an inactive participant. He is left alone. He can no longer push the narrative forward. As the film progresses, Rae’s character begins to change. She begins to grow stronger and more confident in her abilities. She learns how to load the shotgun, take control of the boat and defeat Hughie. In the beginning of the film, she was defined as a frail, weakened woman (unable to cope with the loss of her son) but now she has assimilated herself into the role of leader (she is propelling the narrative). Rae has absconded with the character typically associated with the male protagonist (her name in itself is highly representative of the masculine traits associated with this individual). Her transition as a character is clearly indicated through Nicole Kidman’s excellent, strong willed performance.

In perhaps the most telling scene, Rae is able to find John and rescue him from imminent death. When she does rescue John, she utters the words, “I found you”. Yes, it was her who found him. This woman has conquered the harsh landscape and saved the day. She has successfully subverted all of the masculine ideals Australian cinema has been typically associated with.

However, during the making of this film, many studio executives felt that audience members may be confused as to the ambiguous ending of Hughie. Did he die? Where was he if he did not die? The studio did not want these questions to linger as debate, so they forced a Hollywood style ending on the film. Thus, Hughie is not killed by Rae. He returns and proceeds to attack her. She is defenseless and it is up to John to save her. In one telling instant, everything this film has worked for (the subversion of masculinity) is discarded and the normal gender roles (typical of film) are reinforced. It once again becomes a male versus male battle with the female incapable of action.

This film is a wonderful thriller. It is beautifully shot and the acting is natural, not forced. The film is a true classic in the sense that it will leave one with an undeniable mark afterwards. This film stays with you. It is also a very different type of Australian film as well. It is very undermining and, save for the ending, very subversive of the themes of Australian cinema.

*Of note, there are many instances where Hughie is associated with the colors of the red, white and blue. There is definitely something being noted about America (I am not exactly sure of what but I don’t believe it is positive considering it is represented through the character of Hughie).

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