Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman play John and Rae, a married couple who have decided to take an extended boat trip across the ocean to try and cope with the death of their son in a car accident that Rae survived. As evidenced by an early nightmare sequence, the trip is not working so far. Before long they spot a ship on the horizon that appears abandoned and severely weather beaten. There is someone rowing their way to John and Rae’s boat, and who appears is Hughie, who seems to be frightened and in shock from a supposed food poisoning outbreak on the ship that left the rest of the passengers dead. And the ship is taking on water, sinking fast.
Out of curiosity, John decides to row over and inspect the ship, leaving Rae on the boat with Hughie who has been locked in the cabin. John discovers that the other passengers did not die from food poisoning. They were murdered by Hughie, who escapes the cabin and wrestles control of the boat from Rae just before John can make it back. He hurls himself at the side of the boat, misses the ledge, and is spat out into the water by the propellers. The rest of the picture is split into two stories. On the one hand, Rae must deal with Hughie. On the other, John works feverishly to get the sinking boat up and running so that he may catch up with his wife.
Hughie is played by Billy Zane, and is vital in the success of the story. Hughie is clearly unhinged, and the manic, twitching energy from Zane is unnerving at times. He seemingly takes over the boat and works to create a strange domestic dynamic between him and Rae. Out of fear for her life, Rae obliges at times, but is always trying to find a way to turn the tables. The set of the boat is perfect for suspense; there are but a few places to go and really no place to hide. The psychological tug and pull between Rae and Hughie is the center of this story, and Zane and a young Kidman have a chemistry of hatred and fear. Director Phillip Noyce allows Zane the freedom to act, at times, completely insane, and he stages a few interesting scenes to show Hughie’s instability. One such scene is just when Hughie has taken control of the boat and knocked Rae unconscious and hanging off the side. Once Rae comes to, she observes Hughie dancing alone atop the boat to a walkman singing a Tim O’Connor song. The scene is jarring given the circumstances, and the shift in mood paired with the breezy music is a great moment of psychological misdirection. It is clear that Hughie is not stable.
There are moments in Dead Calm that have to exist, even though they are dumb moves by the protagonists. The fact that John leaves Rae on the boat with Hughie is questionable, but there is at least the argument that Hughie was left locked away. There are times when all that needed to happen was a character needed to pull a trigger and the film would be over. Then again, if that happened, there would be no movie, so you are stuck with head-scratching choices to keep the movie afloat. These moments are not enough to ruin a great thriller like Dead Calm, however. In suspense pictures like this, there will always be moments when the audience scoffs at the characters for their bad decisions. I would argue that is part of the fun.