Steve Zahn did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Duane Martin in Rescue Dawn.
Zahn portrays Duane as almost a walking corpse as there is just so little energy that Zahn puts in the man. The way he shutters about Zahn depicts a man who's just barely holding onto life even when Dieter first appears. Zahn's work is uncompromising because he bluntly portrays Duane as having wasted away in the camp from starvation, as can be seen by his appearance to be sure, but also in his eyes as Zahn shows a man who seemingly has not had a single comfort in a long time. If the starvation was not horrible enough though Duane also suffers from chronic dysentery. Although the film actually does not show this ever, Zahn's performance reveals the unpleasantness of it as he portrays the constant strain of it, as well as the really the embarrassment of it as Zahn so plainly has Duane state that he can't help it. That's not all there is though to it unfortunately for Duane since the men have been tortured before their arrival, and are constantly threatened by violence due to the guards of the camp. Again Zahn's performance reflects this brutality as he always seems to shy away from the guards, and how he wears the suffering of such treatment at all times.
What Zahn does so well is create the mental condition of Duane though within the camp. Where Bale, and Jeremy Davies as the other American in the camp play their roles in a fairly extroverted way, which I do think is fitting in giving a sense of their particular forms of madness, Zahn keeps his performance very introverted as though Duane's very self is wearing to nothing. Zahn, despite his withdrawn approach often becomes the most compelling because you still feel exactly what Duane is going through. Although he never breaks open in the way the other two actors do but this distress he conveys is palatable. Zahn has his own intensity that is incredible as one can see a man who wants to scream out over his life but it can't come out of it. There is perhaps even a little of his own madness, but again very different from the sort shown by Bale and Davies. Zahn once again keeps it internalized within his work as there is something a bit off about Duane, but how could there not be given his circumstances. There is something unpredictable about his manner and there is something so disconcerting about the way Zahn depicts an insanity of what should be a stable man.
This is not a one note performance of endless suffering, even if that is impeccably portrayed by Zahn. Zahn never let's us forget that Duane is a man who had a life before. There is that spark of the past still in him, which makes his current existence all the harrowing. This small spark is best scene in the rather quiet scenes where Dieter and Duane interact with each other. Bale and Zahn are great together as they realize the friendship between the two even though there really is not an excessive focus upon it. They make use of the moments the two do have as there is such a subtle warmth the two draw upon that is quite moving to be sure. There is one particularly good scene where Dieter tells Duane the story about what inspired him to want to be a pilot in the first place. The two's camaraderie seems amplified by them both being pilots, and the two actors create this so well. What I like most about these scenes though is the way Zahn suggests a bit more life in Duane as he interacts with the spirited Dieter. Zahn's work is very poignant as he gives just the slightest bit of hope in Duane's tired eyes as Duane is given motivation to live through Dieter.
The two eventually do make their escape from the camp, but the plan goes wrong which leaves the two of them to have to try to wander through the jungle to find help. Zahn is heartbreaking in the scenes as they progress as he shows Duane lose that hope from the start of the escape. Zahn makes this harrowing as he gradually shows Duane someone become even worse off than he was in the camp, as the remaining bit of his life seems to fade away, to the point that he almost is ghost just stumbling behind the still passionate Dieter, although even he's starting to lose hope as well. This eventually leads the men to take the risk of asking local villagers for help. Even though the two ask for help as meekly as possible the villagers become aggressive. The attack by the villagers is not a long scene but it is gut wrenching as Zahn's performance so simply depicts the horror of the moment, as he finally lets out a scream, though it is only scream of pain just before Duane's life is taken from him. This is tremendous work by Steve Zahn as he presents the painful decline of a man towards death. Zahn earns the final scenes where Duane seems to haunt Dieter, because he haunts us as well.