Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Australian Audient: Dead Calm

This is the latest in my year-long project to watch movies that were made in the only country that is also a continent, and write about them here. (No, Antarctica does not count.)

I know I promised you the 2014 Mia Wasikowska vehicle Tracks this month, but then I realized: You can't do a monthly film-watching series and not at least try to get a horror movie for October.

I sort of succeeded in Dead Calm, which is actually more of a thriller than a horror, but that may be splitting hairs.

Dead Calm also marks the second appearances by Nicole Kidman, Sam Neill and director Phillip Noyce in this series, who previously appeared, respectively, in BMX Bandits, A Cry in the Dark and Rabbit-Proof Fence. Interestingly, this is the first time any directors or major actors have had a repeat appearance.

Dead Calm is also the first movie in the series not really to be set in Australia, in the sense that nearly the whole movie takes place on the Pacific Ocean (near the Great Barrier Reef, according to the credits). There are a couple brief scenes on land, and Neill's character, a sailor returning from duty, has a patch that reads AUSTRALIA on his left shoulder, just in case you were unsure of the film's origins.

John and Rae Ingram (Neill and Kidman) are processing the emotional aftermath of the car accident that killed their son, who was not properly strapped in. To recover from the tragedy -- particularly Rae, who was the driver and blames herself -- the couple sets sail into the Pacific for a month of isolation. Their solitude is almost absolute, until a boat larger than theirs appears on the horizon, and seems to be in trouble. Hailing the distressed craft gets no response, but the Ingrams soon see a man (Billy Zane) frantically rowing toward them. The man, Hughie by name, boards their ship in a state of shock and panic, describing the recent deaths of his five crewmates from food poisoning. John is curious about what really happened aboard that boat, so he takes his dinghy over to snoop around while Hughie sleeps. What he finds makes him wish he had not left the erratic stranger alone with his wife.

Dead Calm is a rather odd sort of movie. It is essentially a home invasion thriller set on a boat, but it lacks a number of the traditional elements that distinguish the genre and that would (if present) give its characters a certain credibility. The film's biggest deficit is its characters' illogical behavior. Sam Neill's decision to leave his wife alone with what seems like a deranged lunatic is short-sighted at best. It would be the more traditional way to go with this movie to make Zane's character initially charming and disarming, which may be why Noyce didn't do that. The chilling portrayal Zane gives instead -- quite effective in the scenario that unfolds -- has the consequence of making Neill's character seem too trusting by half. Not only is he naive, but he has this odd little twinkle of mischief in his eye when he goes over to the other boat. It feels unusual indeed.

With Neill (at least temporarily) sidelined, a twisted dynamic develops between Hughie and Rae in which he becomes not only her potential captor, but her potential rapist as well. The film is not quite that gross, because Hughie is deluded enough to think there is a sexual reciprocity between them, and Rae plays along to try to take advantage of him letting down his guard. But it goes to squeamish places that are perhaps farther than it needed to go, and then maintains an oddly disconnected perspective on them. Essentially, this movie looks away from the debasement of Kidman's character as though it's something we shouldn't think too much about.

What's undeniable, despite the film's flaws, is that it maintains a basic tension, keeping the audience engrossed even within an extremely intimate dynamic that fluctuates between two and three people. Since there are not a bunch of other characters in the cast to bump up the body count, Noyce has to derive the tradition narrative beats of this type of movie out of a minimalist setup. He does so effectively, in part thanks to the three main performances. The film's score is also notable, as it marked Graeme Revell's entry into the world of cinematic scores, an arena that would prove to be extremely fertile for him. His sinister synthesizer is augmented by a bunch of native chants and guttural sounds, creating this moldering sense of dread.

Every time the movie convinces you that it's really doing something smart, however, it undercuts that by a ridiculous concession to genre conventions that is, on occasion, literally laughable. The end result is that Dead Calm lands on the right side of the thumbs up-thumbs down divide, but just barely.

Just two more months of Australian Audient. November's movie will indeed be Tracks, and I will keep my December choice a secret for now -- except to say that it's a movie I've given myself credit for having already seen, when in fact I think I only saw the last half-hour.

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