Monday, April 07, 2014

The Calm Before the Storm

I liked Roger Ebert's lead paragraph in his "Dead Calm" review: "The key image of 'Dead Calm' is of two ships drawing near each other in the middle of a vast, empty expanse of ocean. The emotions generated by this shot, near the beginning of the film, underlie everything that follows, making us acutely aware that help is not going to arrive from anywhere, that the built–in protections of civilization are irrelevant and that the characters will have to settle their own destinies."

That really summarizes things well. The ocean was a player in the movie — at times a barrier from both good and evil, at other times completely neutral, but always there. The lesson was clear — the rules of dry land do not apply on the high seas.

(Actually, in these days of the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and the speculation that it may have crashed in the Indian Ocean, "Dead Calm" is not a bad metaphor. When it is said the plane apparently ran out of fuel in a remote portion of that ocean, it's worth remembering that scene to which Ebert referred.

(Technology has changed many things in the lifetimes of most of us, but it still has not overcome things like time and space. In an era when technology seems to bring everyone in the world closer together and that it really does seem to be a small world after all, it is folly to forget that there are still places in this world that are as unknown to us as the surfaces of distant planets — or that we humans are mere specks occupying this blue–green ball floating in space.)

I had never heard of Nicole Kidman before "Dead Calm" premiered 25 years ago today.

She had been in several movie and TV projects, but they, like "Dead Calm," were Australian projects. I don't recall many Australian movies that made it to the American market in the '80s.

Her co–star, Billy Zane, had had a few small roles in movies like "Back to the Future," but he hadn't received a lot of attention.

After I saw "Dead Calm," I knew who both were. Each received international acclaim. Deservedly so.

That was appropriate, I suppose, because their characters really didn't like each other. At all. It seemed to come so naturally from them that it didn't seem as if it could be acting.

Well, Kidman's character was sympathetic at first, but that didn't last. And Zane's character, well, he was psychopathic.

Even though she was a familiar face in Australia, Kidman was still young (21) and virtually unknown. Zane wasn't much older (23). Their ages really weren't important to the story.

They had to be that young, I suppose. Most older characters probably wouldn't be as plausibly hostile to each other. Oh, I suppose a few might be, but most older characters seem to have a kind of grandparent quality. They're more likely to bake cookies for you or take you fishing than to attack you.

Kidman had to be young to be a believable mother, I suppose — although women don't always become mothers when they are truly young, do they? I was the first child in my family, and my mother was nearly 30 when I was born. So Kidman's character could, conceivably, have been older — but I doubt that Zane's could have. And he would have gotten the best of most of the 30–something women I have known (none of whom had the energy to keep up with a toddler).

When the story began, Kidman's character and her husband (an Australian naval officer played by Sam Neill) lost their young son in a car crash. To help them recover from their loss, they took their yacht on a vacation to the Pacific, where, just when it seemed they were beginning to mend, they encountered a drifting schooner that was taking on water.

A man (Zane) rowed over to the yacht in a dinghy, explained that his boat was taking on water and that everyone on board had died of food poisoning. Neill's character was suspicious so he decided to go over to the boat and check out the situation. He left Zane with Kidman — when I first saw the movie, I thought at the time that was his biggest mistake even though everything seemed to be under control. Zane, apparently exhausted from his ordeal, was asleep, and the door to his cabin was locked from the outside. (I remember wondering at the time why the door locked from the outside.) My fear was confirmed as the movie played out.

Neill found the corpses of Zane's companions — and a video tape that suggested Zane had killed them all in some kind of maniacal frenzy. He tried to return to his yacht, but, by the time he got there, Zane had awakened, knocked out Kidman and sailed away. Neill really had no choice but to return to the ship and try to repair it.

He would spend most of the rest of the movie repairing the schooner and then trying to catch up to his yacht.

In the meantime, the still emotionally fragile Kidman tried everything to persuade Zane to turn around and go back for her husband. She even pretended, at one point, to be attracted to him (after she had exhausted her bag of tricks) and yielded to his advances.

But she hated him — and he hated her, too — and she was constantly trying to contact her husband by radio and figure out a way to get the yacht back to where he was.

Actually, I think the movie would have been a first–rate thriller if not for a few things that I just never could work my way around.

It could have been a great story about the resourcefulness of a woman who apparently knew little about sailing before the trip but managed to learn a great deal about it — mostly on her own (perhaps recalling instructions her husband once gave her but of which the audience knew nothing) — when her husband's life was on the line.

To make her way back to the schooner (the radar equipment indicated the distance between them was more than 40 miles), Kidman had to overcome Zane, tie him up and lock two doors that he would have to get through to reach her. Of course, he did, and she had to fend him off again, this time using a speargun.

Then, with no fuel left and daylight fading, Kidman managed to use the sails to maneuver the yacht to where Neill had set fire to the rapidly sinking schooner, watching it sink from some debris, and then fired a flare into the sky, all to signal his wife. He hoped — but couldn't know — she had seen it.

I found it a little implausible — but then I realized that, being the novice at sailing that she was and probably having been raised with a moral code that prevented her from killing another human, even in the extreme circumstance of oceanic isolation, it was an understandable response to the situation.

The first time I watched the movie, I asked myself, "Why didn't he take the dinghy?" As far as I knew, there was nothing wrong with it.

And I had to agree with Ebert. Kidman's character should have killed Zane instead of tying him up. She knew what he was. She knew he had left her husband to die, and he would probably do the same to her eventually.

I understood that she played along with his naive fantasy that they were a couple on vacation in the Pacific in order to survive. But, when she had seized control of the yacht and had the upper hand, she kept him as a prisoner. How long did she intend to maintain that? After she picked up her husband, would they make a beeline for the nearest port to turn him over to the authorities? You couldn't tell from the movie. Perhaps it was explained in the book upon which the movie was based.

At sea, as in space, no one can hear you scream. And every minute Kidman wasted fending off Zane cost her precious time. Still, she tied him up.

So that part didn't make sense to me.

But neither did the ending, when it appeared that Zane was out of their lives forever — only to pop up suddenly like the hand that comes out of the dirt at the end of "Carrie."

There were other inconsistencies, much more modest and easier to explain. And, in the end, I had to say the performances were genuine.

But I still felt it was a flawed movie in many ways, and not the least of its flaws was its over–the–top conclusion.

I had to agree with Washington Post critic Desson Howe, who wrote, "For much of the movie, you're enthralled. By the end, you're laughing."