Nightmare on the Open Seas: Revisioning DEAD CALM
25 September 2011
Watching Dead Calm and knowing it is a Phillip Noyce film, one may expect focusing on clever action sequences and rapid pacing. True, those Noycisms are there; however, upon closer investigation there is something deeper, or perhaps mysterious about this film. Not that any part of Dead Calm is renowned for its realism, but one can read the film’s final scene as an overt cue to the audience that most of what they’ve watched is not reality, but perhaps a nightmare.
As the film opens, the audience learns Rae (Nicole Kidman) was in a car accident that killed her young son, Danny. Hoping to distance Rae from memories of this trauma, her husband, John(Sam Neill), a high-ranking naval-officer, whisks her away on their private boat where she can mentally and emotional heal. Still severely shaken by her loss, the audience sees Rae abruptly wakeup onboard, screaming from a nightmare in which she relived the fatal accident. Significantly, in the dream she was singing “Incy Wincy Spider” to her son just before his death. Once awake, Rae looks exhausted and deeply depressed. She attempts to take a sedative to ease her suffering, but John stops her. John takes the pill from her hand, pushes the bottle back, and walks away. Rae stares back at the bottle and the scene cuts.
Although the camera does not capture Rae take the sedative, based on the look she gives the bottle and Noyce’s eye-line shot at the bottle, it is reasonable to believe she does take one or more of the pills. Supporting this assumption, in the very next scene, Rae, who is swimming beside the boat, looks entirely different from the previous shot; she looks healthy and alive, unable to resist flashing her husband a smile. Clearly, something has changed—drastically.
Feasibly, Rae did take a sedative and from that moment on the rest of the film is her nightmare; therefore, Hughie (Billy Zane) is a manifestation of the murderer Rae sees within herself.
To begin, the sinking ship Hughie escapes from is named “Orpheus,” which alludes to the Greek god of music. Hughie is often seen playing music, dancing, and singing when holding Rae hostage. This behavior enhances his psychotic characterization; yet, it also connects him with Rae because she too was singing to her son just before he died (“Incy Wincy Spider”). As Rae’s manifestation, Hughie would likely take on behaviors similar to Rae’s the night of her son’s death, behaviors just like carefree singing in the face of danger.
Moreover, Hughie is linked with the color red. Over the course of the film, he wears or possesses a red sweater, red swimming trunks, a red blanket, and, ultimately, gets pushed overboard on a red and black lifeboat when Rae regains control of the boat. Rae is never seen in red… that is until Hughie is seemingly out of the picture. Once Rae and John reunite and Hughie, presumably, floating off in the Pacific, Rae has on a vibrant red sweater.
In the film’s conclusion, as the lifeboat Hughie was on floats back toward Rae and John’s boat (without Hughie), it is flipped over; the red is gone. However, as mentioned, it is not really gone; it moved to Rae. As a symbol, the red represents violence, fear, and death. These things are never gone because if Hughie, the manifestation, is not there to embody them, Rae herself will do it.
By this point in the film, an attentive audience may question why John and Rae are still on this boat. John originally removed Rae from land to escape the trauma that happened to her there. But, by the same logic, why stay on the boat, another place full of traumatic memories? Moreover, the amount of damage done to the boat during Hughie’s rampage is significant. Why doesn’t the boat look damaged?
Perhaps curious of all is when John is washing Rae’s hair. The two indulge in a conversation about luxuries, the types of foods and enjoyments impossible when living on a boat (i.e. hot baths and apple pie). John excuses himself to put together a surprise for Rae. This, of course, is the infamous bloody hands scene (the red is back), but what’s important, and often overlooked, is the tray John returns on deck with. It displays some of the luxuries Rae and John were just discussing as impossibilities, such as fresh mango sprinkled with powdered sugar. Where did these things come from?
Likely, there is no fruit, like there is not damage to the boat or killer named Hughie, because when closely examined Dead Calm is not the ‘hijack on the open seas’ story it initially appears; instead, Dead Calm captures the nightmare of its leading lady, Rae. Her mind created a killer, just the same as she sees in herself, and the killer terrorizes her, just the same as she does to herself.