Follow TV Tropes


Film / Dead Calm

Go To
Dead Calm is a 1989 psychological thriller directed by Phillip Noyce and starring Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane, based on a novel by Charles Williams.

Reeling from their infant son's death in a car accident, Australian couple John (Neill) and Rae (Kidman) Ingram take a vacation in their yacht. Becalmed in the Pacific, they find a drifting boat that appears to be taking on water. A man, Hughie Warriner (Zane) rows out to them, claiming the crew died of food poisoning and the vessel is sinking. John, a Royal Australian Navy officer, is suspicious of Hughie's story and rows out to investigate the stricken boat while Hughie sleeps, but Hughie awakes before John can return and sails off, taking Rae hostage and leaving John stranded.

Dead Calm contains examples of the following tropes:

  • The Captain: Captain John Ingram, a career navy officer, is spending his vacation with his wife on their yacht, helping her recover after a car accident and loss of their son. His skills as a seaman are important more than once.
  • Chekhov's Gun: There is enough of them to fill an armoury, with three shown in the same scene:
    • The box containing a double barrel shotgun...
    • ... along with flare launchers...
    • ... and Ben's fetching ball.
    • There is a radar on Saracen.
    • Ben can open doors by jumping on the handle.
  • Clothing Damage: John starts with immaculately clean and ironed white trousers and a casual shirt. The longer he struggles to survive, the more dirty and torn his clothes get.
  • Cool Boat: The Ingrams' ketch, the Saracen, portrayed by the real life 74 foot racing ketch Stormvogel.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Hughie catches a signal rocket with his mouth, until the rocket burns through his skull. And few scenes before that, Rae basically stranded him in the middle of open ocean in a tiny raft. Shooting him in the head with the speargun would have probably been more merciful in comparison.
  • Damsel out of Distress: It's entirely up to Rae and her actions to get free from Hughie and rescue her husband.
  • Dead Sparks: The Ingrams' marriage is falling apart after the loss of their son and Rae is clinically depressed and distanced from John, despite his best efforts to support and help her. By the end of both the book and the movie their marriage is in much better shape, after going through hell to save each other.
  • Death of a Child: The couple is taking a vacation to recover from the death of their infant son, and Rae accidentally kills her dog while trying to kill Hughie.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Eventually Rae starts to play along with Hughie's behaviour, ultimately buying his trust by having sex with him and lowering his guard completely.
  • Distressed Dude: After learning in just how bad a shape Orpheus is, John can only slow down the schooner sinking, but won't be able to help his wife in any way. Instead, he ends up saved by her.
  • Dramatic Irony: Both Rae and John have their moment. Acting with their best intentions in mind, they kick-start a chain of events leading to a tragedy. Rae tried to fasten Danny's seatbelt, causing an accident and killing the boy in it, while John went to inspect marooned Orpheus.
  • Driver Faces Passenger: With a bit of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. Rae turned back to fasten Danny's seatbelt, so he would be safe in case of accident. Because she turned to him, she lost control of the car, had an accident and the boy died in it. Should she ignore the belt, nothing bad would probably happen.
  • Drowning Pit: When a storm starts outside, a piece of Orpheus' mast falls and blocks the doors of the engine room, trapping John inside, with the water level steadily rising despite his best effort to pump it out. He's forced to improvise a snorkel to not drown.
  • Evidence Dungeon: John investigates the boat Hughie came from and finds five bodies and a video that suggests Hughie murdered everyone. Unusual for the trope, Hughie actually tried to destroy the evidence, damaging the boat in an attempt to scuttle it, then overpowering Rae and sailing off, leaving John to die.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Well, eventually leading to death, but still. Instead of simply killing Hughie, Rae beats him unconscious and throws him on an inflatable raft, stranded in the middle of open ocean .
  • Flare Gun: When John and Rae find the life raft Rae put Hughie on, Rae shoots it twice with a flare launcher. When Hughie returns and tries to strangle Rae, John shoots him with another launcher, killing him.
  • Flashback: The details of the car accident are shown in one. Then it's revealed to be a recurring nightmare Rae has.
  • The Great Repair: Subverted. John tries to fix Hughie's boat so he can give chase to his own (or at least so it remains floating long enough that he can be rescued), but the thing is too damaged and he ends up having to get on a life raft and set it on fire so he'll be seen by someone (who, thankfully, happens to be his wife coming back for him after subduing Hughie).
  • In Name Only: Aside from the names and the situation of a woman held captive by a psycho on a boat, the film bears little resemblance to the book. In the book, John and Rae are newlyweds, and John is a retired Naval officer turned boatyard owner. Hughie is an asexual manchild with a much older wife on a cruise to study and paint tropical flora and faunda; he accidentally kills the captain's wife in a diving accident, then sabotages the yacht and leaves his own wife and the captain to die. The film does, however, closely mirror the Bluebelle murders, on which the book and Orson Welles' unfinished adaptation are loosely based.
  • The Law of Conservation of Detail: The opening sequence, which starts mounting tension right from the first minute. Navy personnel are going home for Christmas. Sam Neill's character disembarks the train and is clearly waiting for someone; when no one shows up, he starts getting impatient. Then two police officers spot him in the crowd, check their notebook and slowly start walking toward him. The camera cuts to John sitting in the back of a police car, visibly stunned. Only then do we learn what happened.
  • Locked in a Room: And with constantly rising water level...
  • Lost in Transmission: John manages to fix the radio from Orpheus. He immediately tries to contact Rae, she calls back... and it turns out his mic is broken, making the conversation one-sided. Interestingly, John uses the sound made by turning on and off the mic to communicate with his wife anyway, while she asks yes/no questions.
  • Minimalism: Not counting the opening sequence, the entire movie takes place on two sets, with three actors on them.
  • Minimalist Cast: A married couple, and a psycho.
  • Mood-Swinger: Hughie wildly swings between kindness and rage. When investigating Hughie's boat, John finds evidence Hughie murdered everyone in a bout of extreme rage.
  • Nightmare Sequence: Downplayed. We are treated a flashback scene, showing the car accident, a very mundane event. Then the scene cuts to Rea waking up and crying - it's the dream she keeps having ever since the accident, time after time.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: The Ingrams rescue apparently the only person not dead from food poisoning in the middle of the ocean... and he's a killer, who first chance given steals their yacht, maroons John and takes Rae hostage.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: One of the worst imaginable. Danny decoupled his seatbelts. Rae, trying to fasten them back, lost the control of the car and had an accident, in which the boy died precisely because he wasn't fastened... and twenty minutes after the crash, while she was still in the car, unconscious and unable to do anything about it.
  • Peek-a-Boo Corpse: When John is investigating the flooded belowdecks of the Orpheus, a body floats by, suddenly and without warning.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Hughie acts in the most immature fashion imaginable, absolutely unable to evaluate his actions in any way. He killed five people in a fit of anger. Then, after he leaves John stranded and has Rae as his hostage, he scolds her for killing the mood with her anger or desire to rescue John. Combined with Zane's performance it creates a chilling effect of just how unhinged his character is.
  • Reed Snorkel: When the door to the engine room gets blocked by a broken piece of a mast and Orpheus takes on water too fast to pump it out, John saves himself by using a pipe leading above water level.
  • Relationship-Salvaging Disaster: You've got a better one than fighting for your life against a psychopath?
  • Slipping a Mickey: A hefty dose of antidepressants is thrown into Hughie's lemonade. He's hesitant to drink it, but gulps it down after Rae takes a sip herself.
  • Sole Survivor: Hughie Warriner is the only survivor of a photography cruise which he claims ended with everyone else dying of food poisoning. Turns out he murdered everyone in a fit.
  • Survivor Guilt: Not only did the Ingrams' son die in a car accident, but Rae is toiling under the fact she came out of it almost unscratched - and worse, she was the driver - constantly getting back to the moment and blaming herself.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Despite having every reason to do so, Rae never tries to kill - at least not directly - her kidnapper.
  • Title Drop: After radioing Orpheus, John makes a note in the log. Camera pans over his writing and focus on the morning entry, describing complete lack of wind, also known as dead calm.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Rae starts the story as a complete wreck and basically a Damsel in Distress. By the end of the film she subdues Hughie, sails her way for John, rescues him and most likely finally starts to accept the loss of her son in an accident.
  • Tranquil Fury: After all the suffering and finally managing to best Hughie, Rae tells him with a straight face that she will kill him if he makes a single move.