The Deep End
2001, R, 99 min. Directed by Scott Mcgehee, David Siegel. Starring Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic, Jonathan Tucker.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 24, 2001
To be a mother -- at least, a good one -- is to be a zealot, fanatically devoted to the cause of your children. You'd have to be, to suffer the trials and indignities of potty training, measles, far-flung vomit, and runny noses, not to mention the ingratitude and downright nastiness most children regularly deliver their makers. And Margaret Hall (Swinton) is just like any other mother. Only her trials and indignities, in addition to full-time chauffeuring and caretaking of three children and an ailing father-in-law while her husband is in absentia on a navy ship, involve the disposal of dead bodies that may or may not have been done off by her 16-year-old son, Beau (Tucker). Margaret doesn't know how the body of Beau's older, reckless boyfriend ended up dead, but she's not taking any chances, knowing that body could ruin her son's future. So she gets rid of it. It doesn't take a supersleuth to know that cleaning up messes in movies is never, ever that easy, and indeed, Margaret sets off a disastrous (and, yes, a little bit unbelievable) chain of events. A blackmailer named Alex (a moving Visnjic) enters the picture, and the film hinges on the complex, shifting relationship between Alex and Margaret … one of the film's few trouble spots, it turns out. The Deep End seems to be missing some crucial beat in the middle, in which the developments between Alex and Margaret feel real rather than a tacit suspension of belief on the part of the audience. If you can forgive the clumsiness of that slight, middle misstep, the beginning and ending truly pay off. Co-writers and directors Scott McGehee and David Seigel based the film on The Blank Wall, the late Forties noir novel by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (film director Max Ophuls also adapted the book as The Reckless Moment), and The Deep End appropriately unravels with the steady, smooth clip of a novel, elegantly maintaining both a ruminative and suspensefully tense tone throughout. (You'd think the two would be at odds. They're not.) But The Deep End isn't so much a thriller as a ringside seat to something that starts out like a warning of inclement weather and rapidly upgrades to full-on shitstorm. Margaret stands as the sole shield between her family and that storm, and Swinton (Orlando, The Beach) plays the shield remarkably. Swinton as an actress has always struck me as chilly: an expert at craft, but a flop at eliciting any visceral response. I don't trust her, in the way that I don't trust people with perfect posture. Here, she's just as distant and stoic, but she's got good reason: She's a mother, for chrissakes, she has to be strong. Yet, as the dominoes pick up speed and force, and Margaret finds it more and more difficult to keep her head above water, Swinton flames these split-second moments of frailty, of rage, of real emotion. A moment is there, and then it is gone, maybe to reappear like a laugh line, and in that moment Swinton is heartbreaking. She's not just craft; she's high art.