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‘Dead Calm’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 07, 1989


Phillip Noyce
Sam Neill;
Nicole Kidman;
Billy Zane
sexual abuse and other forms of violence

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Ever since Pandora, letting the bogyman out of the box has been women's work. When an ax murderer is in the neighborhood, or a mutant poltergeist in the closet, when nobody in her right mind would open that door, the thriller-chiller heroine can't wait to. Sure it's dumb, but it has been scaring audiences silly for thousands of years.

Nicole Kidman, as the freckled Rae Ingram in the entertaining Australian mystery "Dead Calm," is perhaps the all-time dumbest of the Pandoras. She is a veritable Vanna White of door openers in this polished if improbable creepy-crawler -- a cross between an oceangoing "Alien" and a distaff "Die Hard." While she tries our patience, she never loses her appeal.

Produced by George Miller, the creator of the "Mad Max" trilogy, the drama tests Rae Ingram's gumption not in postapocalyptic Australia, but in the flat, windless South Seas. After surviving the car crash that killed her young son, Rae must find her self-worth again through a series of gruesome trials.

Rae and her husband John (Sam Neill), a career naval officer, are trying to recover from their loss during a long, peaceful cruise. They are becalmed on their 80-foot ketch Saracen when John spots the Orpheus, a black schooner wallowing one-half mile to starboard. Furiously rowing away from the ship is a rat named Hughie (Billy Zane), pouring sweat and rolling his eyes.

Suspicious of his story that his shipmates all died of food poisoning, John locks Hughie in a cabin and takes the dinghy to investigate. He warns Rae to carry the ship's gun -- a veritable blunderbuss -- and not to let Hughie out for anything. "I'm going to throw up," says Hughie, which is all it takes to trick the unarmed Rae into opening the door. Hughie then takes over the Saracen, leaving John to sink with the Orpheus.

As paranoid psychotics go, Hughie isn't all that bad. In fact, he leaves Rae to her own devices while he listens to rock music on deck. Any sensible she-farer would knock him over the head with a Topsider. But not Rae, who also has access to the radio, yet never calls for help. Numb with grief and guilt, perhaps she feels she deserves this penance. As the focus of the story, however, she will evolve from sniveling victim to a sea-striding Valkyrie. Meanwhile her endlessly resourceful husband manages to keep the Orpheus afloat, all the while tripping over ghoulish evidence of Hughie's true nature.

Director Phillip Noyce raises the stakes so skillfully that you find yourself ducking the boom. He's a masterful manipulator, but eventually there is no more wind in these sails, not even enough to riffle a jib, as the story and Rae's character wear thin.

Producer-writer Terry Hayes, who adapted the screenplay from a 1964 novel, pits Rae against a monster who won't stay dead. Hughie has more lives than Shirley MacLaine, Rasputin and an Eveready battery combined, but he is simply not as terrifying as the slobbering unknown that was the Alien. Kidman does, however, suggest a softer Sigourney Weaver as she shakily skewers Hughie with a harpoon. But harpoons are as hatpins to Hughie's thick skin; a bottle of sedatives just relaxes him.

Zane has his first major role as the unglued seafarer, and brings little subtlety to the character. He's Freddy with sea legs. Neill, last seen in "A Cry in the Dark," another Australian lost-baby, mother-trial movie, has little to do but tread water. Too bad, but he does it well. And the ship's dog is splendidly played by the most experienced member of the cast Benji.

"Dead Calm" could be tauter, running with the wind instead of under power. What's most fascinating about it is Rae's place in the pantheon of heroines, an Amazon for the '90s.

"Dead Calm" is rated R for sexual abuse and other forms of violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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