Phillip Noyce’s Dead Calm

Fear of isolation has been a staple element in film since the beginning. A quiet, shrouded forest. A damp, derelict back alley. The endless waters of earth’s oceans, which is where Philip Noyce’s nightmarish psychosexual shocker Dead Calm takes place. The key is not in projecting fear of being isolated, which is bad enough, but instilling the unnerving notion that you’re not actually alone after all, and be it human, supernatural or the forces of nature, something is out there with you. This is what vacationing couple Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman discover, only in this case it’s no creature or ghost, but Billy Zane instead. I know what you’re thinking, that perennial goofball Zane is the farthest thing from fearsome you could find, but he’s actually one of the most memorable and shit-scary movie villains out there. Neill and Kidman are a couple with enough issues to begin with, sailing their schooner somewhere way out there trying to forget past tragedy, until Zane brings new trouble onto their horizon. After they rescue him half dead floating on the waves, he tells them of a capsized ocean liner, and claims to be it’s only survivor. Neill isn’t quite bought and sold on his story and ventured off to see for himself, unwisely leaving his wife behind with this strange dude, which is loose thriller plotting 101, but oh well, inciting incidents have to come from somewhere, don’t they. Zane turns out to be an unstable maniac of the highest order, and steers the schooner off on his own course with Kidman in tow, and Neill left in the wake, trying to find them out there and save her. The scary thing about this villain is that he has no plan, no goals, no endgame or reason for doin this, he’s simply certifiably out of his fucking head, and there’s an unpredictability to that which I found immensely freaky. The scenes aboard the boat with him and Nicole on their own are charged with a tangible danger and crazed frenzy, a canary in a cage circled by a thoroughly crazy cat. The acting sells it there, with Kidman’s raw terror and Zane’s oddball sociopathy walking a narrow, rigid tightrope that could snap any second, and does. When the action comes it’s fierce, R rated mayhem as Neill vengefully charges back into the picture, and although not as intimately scary as the horror bits, still holds our gaze. Zane also gets one of the coolest villain deaths ever seen, shot in full gory detail as well. A chamber piece at sea, a glowing example of effective filmmaking in the thriller genre, and scary in spades.

-Nate Hill

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