Dead Calm: Rae tries to slow the boat

Dead Calm: Rae tries to slow the boat
WARNING: This clip contains violence
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Rae (Nicole Kidman) shuts off the engine and takes the key. Hughie (Billy Zane) tries to get it back but she’s too quick for him. Unfortunately, the dog is even quicker. Summary by Paul Byrnes.

Unexpected use of humour, set up by an earlier scene where we see Rae playing fetch with the dog. Again, the scene has a metaphorical resonance. Rae enters the male world (the engine room) and tries to take control of the boat, to come up from below. It’s filmed like a sports event. Hughie sees the humour of it and even uses a sports metaphor to describe her temporary win. 'Helluva season ahead of her…’ Tension is relieved before it is rebuilt in the finale.

Dead Calm synopsis

Australian naval officer John Ingram (Sam Neill) and his young wife Rae (Nicole Kidman) take their yacht to sea to recover from the death of a child. Becalmed in mid-ocean, they rescue a frightened young American, Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane), from a sinking schooner. While John investigates the other boat, the psychotic Hughie takes control of the yacht and leaves him behind.

Dead Calm curator's notes

Dead Calm is basically a dangerous hitchhiker story, set on water. The thriller elements are reduced to as few as possible – two boats, two men, one woman, one dog, and a cruel sea. Within this minimalist framework, the film carries a lot of subtext, to do with grief, passion and a form of resurrection. Rae is a broken woman at the start, marooned on a yacht with a husband who doesn’t know how angry he is. They have lost their son in a car accident in which she was driving. They are not a happy family. The stranger Hughie brings his own happy family fantasy with him.

Some of the creepiness of Zane’s performance comes from his willingness to believe Rae actually fancies him. They do have a sexual encounter in the film, but it’s shown as Rae’s ultimate self-sacrifice – and the turning point, in terms of her finding her own strength. The script, adapted from a 1963 novel by little known American pulp writer Charles Williams, plays with the conventions of the sun-sex-sailing fantasy. An idyll becomes a nightmare, and the sea (usually depicted in literature as female) rises up to punish them – or perhaps to aid another female. (The novel had been filmed already, in 1968 by Orson Welles, but that film was never completed).

Nicole Kidman was 20 when she was cast in Dead Calm in 1987. She had just become an overnight star in Australia in Kennedy Miller’s TV mini-series Vietnam. Within a year of Dead Calm’s opening in 1989, she was in Hollywood, starring opposite Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder – partly as a result of her performance in this film. Dead Calm also opened the Hollywood door for director Noyce. He would not make another film in Australia until Rabbit-Proof Fence, 13 years later.

Education notes

This clip shows Rae Ingram (Nicole Kidman), entering the engine room of the yacht on which Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane) is holding her captive. She locates the ignition switch and turns off the engine. Hughie, who is sitting on the mast boom listening to music, hears the engine switch off and jumps down to find Rae as she emerges from the engine room into the yacht’s cabin. Hughie chases her but Rae escapes onto the deck with the key to the yacht’s engine and throws it over the side. The dog jumps overboard to fetch it and Rae pleads with him to drop it, as Hughie coaxes him to bring the key back.

Educational value points

  • Australian actor Nicole Kidman plays Rae Ingram, the young wife of Australian naval officer John Ingram (Sam Neill), in Dead Calm. It was this lead role that gained her international recognition, particularly in the USA where she went on to launch a successful career. In her US debut, Days of Thunder (1990), she played opposite Tom Cruise whom she married the same year. Kidman is one of Australia’s most successful actors and she has been nominated for, and won, a number of international awards including the Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002). Her film career spans 23 years and she has featured in more than 30 films.
  • The clip successfully uses sound effects, music, lighting, camera angles and editing techniques to build suspense and create tension. Lighting is used effectively to contrast the confined space of the cabin with the openness on the deck. Camera angles and editing techniques are used to cut between the victim and the perpetrator, building the suspense and tension familiar to the thriller genre.
  • Humour and metaphor contribute to the film narrative and character. Unexpected humour is created when Rae attempts to get to the deck with the engine key while avoiding Hughie, with the ensuing chase filmed like a sports event and Hughie using a sports metaphor to describe Rae’s temporary win. The humour in this scene contrasts dramatically with the power and cruelty that Hughie shows when he grabs Rae by the hair and throws her on the deck. The humour highlights the extremes in his personality.
  • The film was based on the novel Dead Calm written in the late 1950s by US writer Charles Williams. Orson Welles bought the rights, renamed it 'The Deep’ and began filming in 1968, but abandoned it in 1973 after the death of a key cast member. Complications over the rights made it difficult to remake but these were eventually settled and Terry Hayes rewrote the screenplay based on the original story.
  • Director of photography Dean Semler won an AFI (Australian Film Institute) Award in 1989 for Best Achievement in Cinematography for Dead Calm, which was filmed on the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Queensland. The photography incorporates a wide range of shots that effectively capture the action, the subtleties of the performances and the environment of the yacht. In his international career Semler has been nominated for, and won, a number of other awards including an AFI award for My First Wife (1984) and an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for Dances with Wolves (1990) in 1992.
  • Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce attracted great acclaim for Dead Calm in the USA, and the movie successfully launched his career in Hollywood. Dead Calm won four AFI Awards in 1989, for Best Original Music Score (Graeme Revell) and Best Achievement in Cinematography (Dean Semler), Editing (Richard Francis-Bruce) and Sound (Ben Osmo, Lee Smith, Roger Savage). Phillip Noyce has become one of Australia’s best known film directors, with features including Newsfront (1978), Heatwave (1982), Patriot Games (1992), Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and The Quiet American (2002).

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Kennedy Miller
George Miller, Terry Hayes, Doug Mitchell
Phillip Noyce
Screenplay by :
Terry Hayes
Based on a novel by :
Charles Williams
Music :
Graeme Revell
Nicole Kidman, Sam Neill, Billy Zane
Licensed by Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

This clip starts approximately 47 minutes into the feature.

Rae cautiously enters the engine room of the yacht and fumbles for the ignition switch.
Rae Ah! 
Nursing her hand, she manages to switch off the engine.

Up on deck, Hughie is smoking and listening to blues music. He jumps up when he realises the boat has stopped. He pursues Rae above and below decks until both are standing on opposite ends of the deck. She holds up the ignition key.
Hughie Score one for Mrs Ingram. She has a hell of a season ahead of her. 
Rae throws the key overboard, but is dismayed to see her dog, thinking it’s a game, leap overboard to fetch it. Rae and Hughie both call out to the dog.
Rae Ben, no! No, Ben! Leave it! Leave it there. 
Hughie Fetch, Ben, come on. Bring it here, boy. 
Rae Alright, bring it here. 
Hughie Stay, Ben. 
Rae Come on. OK, drop it. Drop the key. 
Hughie Hold the key, Ben. 
Rae No, drop it! 
Hughie Give it, boy. 
Rae Over here, Ben. Come on! 
Hughie Hey, Ben. Backstroke. 
Rae Come on, Ben. Come on! 
Ben swims to the boat with the key in his mouth. As Rae reaches to grab it from him, Hughie pulls at her hair from behind. 
Rae Ah! Oh! 
Hughie That’s beautiful bone structure there, Rae. 
He pulls back her head and kisses her forehead. Pulling her by the hair he throws her to the ground.
Rae Ah! Ah! Ah. 
Hughie pulls Ben onto the boat.
Hughie Good boy. He’s a champ, this one.