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OZ CINEMA
Your guide to Australian film.
By Joshua Smith

Suspense + Surprise = Dead Calm

Author: Joshua Smith
Published on: June 23, 1998

Leading Players: Sam Neill (John Ingram), Nicole Kidman (Rae Ingram), Billy Zane (Hughie Warriner), Rod Mullinar (Russell Bellows), Joshua Tilden (Danny), George Shevtsov (Doctor), Michael Long (Specialist Doctor).

Main Crew: prod, Terry Hayes, Doug Mitchell, George Miller; dir, Phillip Noyce; writ, Terry Hayes (based on the novel by Charles Williams); dop, Dean Semler; ed, Richard Francis-Bruce; mus, Graeme Revell; prod d, Graham Walker; art d, Kimble Hilder; cos, Norma Moriceau.

Phillip Noyce's Dead Calm (1989) is a masterful Hitchcockian exercise in audience manipulation. Just as the title's duplicity suggests juxtaposing emotive responses, Noyce has, right from the outset, skilfully balanced the peaks and troughs of the thriller in order to produce maximum emotive response.

Within the film's dramatic opening moments, in which the child of Rae (Nicole Kidman) and John (Sam Neill) is killed in a motor accident, Noyce executes a slow dissolve from the heart-wrenching image of a traumatised Kidman to the soothing, calm waters of the Pacific Ocean. From that point on, the expansive, lifeless ocean becomes a recurring motif to mark troughs in the film's intensity. The water also is also used to represent a barrier, a seemingly transparent, knowable substance whose shiny fašade hides a mysterious interior - just like Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane).

The Titanic's (1997) Billy Zane appears unexpectedly from the Ocean and just as his materialisation holds mysteries, so does his situation. A dead crew is harboured within his sinking boat - a mystery that John discovers soon after Hughie's acceptance onto Saracen - the boat John shares with Rae. John, playing out an established convention of the thriller/horror genre, makes his biggest mistake by entering the villain's lair. Hughie assaults Rae before heading off in the Saracen, leaving John in the vulnerable position of manning Hughie's sinking ship.

Aboard the ship, John stumbles across evidence of Hughie's shocking history, as well as various phallic symbols that both indicate Hughie's vile intentions and John's induced paranoid state. The portrayal of John's chaotic claustrophobic, isolated state shares elements with Proyas' Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1989) and the previous Kennedy-Miller co-production Mad Max (1979). Of course, this is another of the film's complex duplicities. While Hughie's psychosis had undoubtedly increased as a result of his long-term isolation at sea, resulting in his failure to adapt to normal life, John, a desperate protector of his family unit, is forced into a helpless position, and thus begins his descent into paranoia.

The other result of John's separation from the boat, obviously, is the fact that Rae is forced to fight for herself. In many ways, her ruthless struggle is similar to that displayed by Ridley (Sigourney Weaver) in the Alien films, and could be seen as a feminist statement. Still, Noyce and writer Terry Hayes have created another element of thematic complexity by having Rae succumb to Hughie's sexual advances - in order to implicitly establish control, of course.

Rae and Hughie's continuing struggle aboard the 'Saracen' is both juxtaposed with images of John's frantic and helpless efforts to keep the Orpheus afloat and with lulls in the action in those scenes in which Rae pretends to submit to Hughie's twisted domestic desires and in the scenes in which Hughie is sedated. This is one method whereby Phil Noyce has created tension and suspense within the film's diegesis. The foreshadowing of significant plot twists has also been employed - another popular suspense device. Where Dead Calm surpasses most thrillers, though, is in its concurrent manipulation of audience expectations through elements of surprise.

Just as Hitchcock often employed elements of both surprise and suspense in his riveting thrillers, Noyce (and Dr, George Miller, who allegedly directed the Second unit and the opening sequence (Murray, 1995, p.272)) have successfully utilised both elements, and defied various conventions to create a thriller that will have you holding your breathe until the very last revelation.

As a side note, the novel on which the film is based, Charles Williams' Dead Calm, was transposed to celluloid once previously, by Orson Welles in The Deep (1968) - a film that has never been screened. Charles Williams was apparently opposed to the Hollywood studio system and after his death, his estate resolved to never sell the rights to his story to a Hollywood production company, though Australian Phil Noyce was offered the opportunity to direct the film. I imagine that Mr Williams would be quite impressed with the result.

 
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