Alone On A Wide, Wide Sea : Dead Calm (1989)

Illustration : Noel Tanti

[This post was previously published on Schlock Magazine’s The Sea quarterly.]

I am terrified of the open sea.  I can think of few situations that make me feel so exposed and vulnerable; that gargantuan mass of water pregnant with an unseen universe, simply unnerves me.  Surely, the reason behind this (sometimes) irrational fear stems from a nasty childhood episode that is cosily repressed in my subconscious, which is quite ironic, really, as the sea is often used as metaphor for what lies beneath the realm of consciousness, a case in point being Philip Noyce’s Dead Calm (1989).

John (Sam Neill) and Rae (Nicole Kidman) escape on their yacht in order to deal with the death of their young son who was catapulted out of the car’s windscreen whilst his mum was at the wheel.  I cannot profess to know what parents go through when such a dreadful thing occurs.  I can only imagine the horror of seeing your own flesh and blood dead, lifeless; all the love, plans and hopes for the future killed with one hurried sweep of the scythe.

Even worst is the fact that Rae was the one driving when the accident happened and is therefore made to wear the vestiges of Death, because of guilt (on her part) and blame (her husband’s).  In moments of extreme sorrow the mind tries to find a scapegoat, someone on whom to project and unburden the mass of numbness weighing on the heart, and Rae is the only candidate.  John may not believe that his wife is responsible for his son’s death, but surely, at some point, the thought must have crossed his mind.  Similarly, Rae reenacts the whole tragedy over and over again, trying to identify that one little thing that would have made all the difference and kept her baby alive.

John wants the ‘weeks and weeks’ of ‘calm days (and) calm seas’ to be the stage upon which their past is erased and life begins anew.  The issue of blame crops up once more as he insists on Rae getting stronger, implying that he is coping well and doing fine.  The couple follows the stereotypical woman-man dynamic in which the former breaks down when confronted with tragedy whereas the latter maintains his composure and control over the situation.  However there is something rotten boiling underneath John’s apparent tranquillity and one way or another, it’s going to make itself manifest.  In this case it takes the form of a derelict schooner that is a veritable ghost ship and which provides a total contrast and mirror image to John and Rae’s yacht.  The only survivor is Hughie (Billy Zane), who turns out to be the abject personification of the couple’s unsolved issues.

There are several factors which suggest that Hughie is in fact a grotesque representation of the memory of the dead son.  For instance, Hughie is a very unlikely name for a psychopath who is over six years of age.  His food poisoning tale sounds way too contrived and improbable, just like a kid’s fib, and John and Rae appropriately assume the role of parents and symbolically send Hughie to his room as punishment for lying.  (In reality they lock him inside one of the yacht’s bedrooms where he is sleeping, but the analogy is all there.)  Also, Hughie’s actions follow no purpose or logic; he lives solely in the present tense and seems to be guided solely by what Freud referred to as the pleasure principle.  Even though he kidnaps Rae and steals the boat, he does nothing besides sailing randomly about.  He lives for the thrill of the moment and acts like a parasite that lives off its host till it sucks it dry and kills it.  In this case, it is a memory which is the parasite and the only way to get rid of it is to confront it.

This explains the apparent foolishness of John leaving his wife on the boat with a stranger.  When he boards the deserted schooner, appropriately named Orpheus, recalling the character in Greek myth who travelled down to the Underworld to fetch his beloved Eurydice, John is mirroring the events that led to his son’s death:  Rae was on her own, taking care of the boy whilst he was away.  Both of them have to travel down this road again and overcome the sense of guilt, fear and anxiety that is keeping them from moving on.  Just like Orpheus, they have to go up against Death, look it in the eye, and then proceed with their lives without so much as a backward glance.

John needs to let go of his stoicism and allow himself to feel the loss of his son.  He has to discard his mask and look at his own raw self, without the escapism and forced order that he so desperately clings to.  The abandoned yacht acts as metaphor for the repressed part of his psyche, in that it is the total opposite of the one he owns.  Whereas the Saracen is neat and spotless, the Orpheus is anything but.  Below deck are the dead bodies of the crew, and a series of freakish statues of mermaids with very prominent breasts, which suggest that John and Rae’s inability to confront the death of their son, also has negative repercussions on their sex life.  It also explains Rae’s use of a black, one-piece swimsuit, a detail that struck me as quite strange the first time I saw it.  The couple are on their own, in the middle of nowhere, and Rae, a beautiful, statuesque woman, chooses to cover her body as much as possible.  The colour confirms her mourning whilst the choice of bathing suit declares her body to be out of bounds.

John tries to fix the boat (his damaged ego) but it is a lost cause and is sinking fast.  He can either stick to his guns and go down with it, or else pluck up the courage to abandon the sinking vessel and trust himself to the sea currents (the subconscious).  He opts for the latter and by setting fire to the damn boat, rids himself of a terrific burden.

This leads him back to Rae, which confirms that he made the right choice.  But Rae had her fair share of problems to face.

Before the arrival of Hughie, she was very dependant on John.  She was a nervous wreck, helpless and hopeless, her sole means of survival being the numbness provided by sleeping pills and the blind faith in her husband.  However, with John out of the equation, she had to lay aside her passiveness and become an active participant in her life if she wanted to survive.  Rae had to act instead of react, and take control of her environment in order to be able to manipulate it to her own advantage.  In a few words, she needed to own the memory of the tragic death of her son, and then let it go.

Whilst John was trying to keep the Orpheus afloat, Rae was doing her damnedest to oust the invader off the Saracen.  The boat belongs to her and her husband, it is their second home, and she was not going to allow Hughie to infect and corrupt it.  She does this by assuming total control.  The boat becomes a veritable arsenal full of weapons that she uses against her enemy; the sleeping pills, which had such a powerful grip on her, become allies; and she is also not averse to using her body and sexuality in order to get what she wants.  The days of debilitating mourning are over.

Rae finally manages to get the upper hand on Hughie, and puts him on a dingy that drifts off into the open sea.  Some time later she finds her husband, stranded on a make-shift raft, and takes him on board.  Thus, Rae is now ready to let go of the gangrenous past and embrace her new future with John.

Unfortunately, the film ends on a silly note.  Hughie somehow makes his way back to the Saracen, and as he is about to attack Rae, John shoots him in the mouth with a flare gun.  It turns out that this ending was forced upon the film because the producers thought that the original one, having Hughie disappear out at sea, was too vague and would not satisfy the audience.  Assuming that only morons go to the cinema always baffles me.  However, on a positive note, the final minutes do little to discredit the fine work done up to that point.

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