Philip Noyce’s 1989 Dead Calm is a classic thriller set-up superbly executed, without achieving anything beyond its genre confines. In the initial scenes, a young mother, Rae (Nicole Kidman), crashes her car, killing her toddler. Her husband John (Sam Neill), an experienced naval officer, takes her on a yacht off the Great Barrier Reef to recover.
Into their idyllic holiday comes the lone survivor from a sinking ship, Hughie (Billy Zane). Hughie is a manic, charming and strong man. Suspicious of his story that the rest of the crew died of food poisoning, John rows over to the foundering ship, leaving the sleeping Hughie with Rae. John discovers the rest of the crew murdered and frantically tries to return to Rae, but Hughie has already taken control of the yacht. For the rest of the film, Rae negotiates with Hughie while John pursues them in the sinking ship.
The question raised for me from a Christian perspective is one of hospitality and neighbourliness. Bearing in mind the film is not meant to be typical of life, it still reinforces an anxiety that lurks in the collective mind: the stranger in need of help may actually be a dangerous psychopath. Even in a Christian family regularly telling Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, I was brought up with this fear. ‘Be careful who you help’; ‘there’s certain people you just can’t risk stopping to help’.
It would have been good if Jesus had prepared us more thoroughly for this anxiety – or maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. Was one of the men hurrying past the injured traveller actually scared he might attack him if he helped? Would Jesus stop to help anyone he saw in need of help? He probably would have, even today. Yet again, the question brings home to me the cost of discipleship, the call to a life I fall short of.
But perhaps John in the film actually has the right response – he offers Hughie hospitality, but he’s not stupid; he checks out the story. He even takes precautions, locking Hughie in the cabin. It’s just not enough when you are facing a murderous psychopath. On the other hand, perhaps John’s response to Hughie in the final scene, when he shoots him through the head with a flare gun, falls short of Jesus’s call to nonviolence.