What day is it in COOTDville? That’s right, it’s Billy Zane Day. Bow before your overlord, the only person who made Titanic watchable, yes I said it and I’ll say it again.
But today is not about Billy Zane in Titanic. It is about Billy Zane in the 1989 thriller Dead Calm, in which he plays a psychopath who terrorizes a married couple (Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill) on the high seas. Specifically, it is about the way Billy Zane dies in Dead Calm, so if you're a spoilerphobe feel free to listen to Billy Zane saying "and I put the coat! On! Her!" on a loop for the next three minutes instead of reading the rest of this post.
All jokes aside, Dead Calm is a taut, well-paced thriller, and Zane's performance—one of the earliest in his career—is genuinely great. Zane might be something of a punchline nowadays, but his turn in Dead Calm mixed an effortless charisma with just-under-the-surface menace in a way that makes his character really disturbing. It's a bit odd to think of now, given the overacting that Zane is known for, but in Dead Calm he didn't go full, scenery-chewing psycho, and that's what makes his performance great. It's not really that sort of movie.
Until the last five minutes, when Billy Zane dies by taking a flare to the face.
I dislike this scene for several reasons. One: It takes the low-key, claustrophobic vibe of the rest of the film and shoots it into the land of the ridiculous with an improbably well-aimed flare. Two: Before this, Nicole Kidman's character managed to dispatch Zane and rescue her husband, Sam Neill, from certain death. Then, we get a "Surprise! The villain's not dead after all!" turn (fine), done in such a way that renders the husband the hero who gets to save his poor wife, after all (not fine). Ugh, the patriarchy.
I like this scene for one reason. But it's a pretty compelling one: Because Sam Neill shoots Billy Zane in the face with a flare.
To live in this world is to be beset by contradictions.