The Deep End was made with a humble budget and highbrow aspirations, but in its heart, it’s simply a good Hollywood potboiler.
This 2001 Sundance entry, with distribution from the Fox Searchlight boutique, is pure, uncut melodrama. With one remarkable exception, the characters are only the broadest sketches of human beings. The plot twists fly furiously, and everything is done with less regard for logic than for dramatic effect. It brings to mind the suspenseful radio plays of the 1940s as it builds a palpable sense of dread, and only its scattershot plausibility hinders the unrolling of a crackling good yarn.
Trouble starts in the sharp opening scene. Margaret (Tilda Swinton) goes to a Reno club to confront a slick creep named Darby, who’s been having a bit of gay sex with her 17-year-old son Beau. Frightened but determined, she tells Darby to buzz off, which he says he’ll do—for $5,000.
We’re quickly shown around Margaret’s world, where an awkward silence or an angry confrontation lurks in every corner. Dealing with her oldest son’s homosexuality is just the latest challenge for this mother of three whose husband is a Navy admiral serving in remote parts of the world. She lives with her kids and her strange father-in-law on the shores of Lake Tahoe—an out-of-the-way locale well suited to film noir.
Darby visits Beau late that night in a nearby boathouse. They fight, and after Beau leaves in a huff, Darby ends up dead. This is the most delicious genre twist employed by writer-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel: We’re pretty sure we know exactly what happened, since we just saw it, but none of the characters do. Margaret finds the body the next morning, and assuming Beau killed him, she decides to cover things up with a ferocious burst of maternal instinct. But it’s not over. A mysterious guy named Alek (Goran Visnjic from ER) shows up at Margaret’s home, claiming to have incriminating videotape and demanding $50,000 for it. As even more twists pile on, we’re given the remarkable spectacle of Margaret trying to raise a huge sum of money while also taking care of her family’s most mundane needs. Every task requires effort, and Margaret devotes herself to all of them.
The film’s driving force is a fine performance from Swinton, an eclectic actor who usually plays much more enigmatic roles (Orlando, The Beach). Here, the Scottish Swinton brings to mind another non-American redhead: Australian Cate Blanchett, whose tarot card-reading mother in The Gift had more than a few similarities to Margaret. Maternal will has been explored on film before, but it’s interesting to see a profoundly inaccessible actress like Swinton sinking her teeth into a very humanistic role as a soccer mom faced with a few more challenges than the rest of the coffee klatch.
It also helps that the film is simply stunning to look at. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who also shot Battlefield Earth (and did 27 months in a federal penitentiary as punishment for it, I’m told), turns Tahoe into a magic carpet of blues and greens. He succeeds in interior shots as well; Swinton’s unusually pale face gets layers of warmth from Nuttgens’ brilliant work.
McGehee and Siegel’s first film was a profoundly silly venture called Suture, in which a ridiculous racial message undermined a decent story. The Deep End is less Camus and more James M. Cain, making for a film that’s sometimes confusing, often fantastical and consistently engaging. We’re constantly forced to gloss over the strange coincidences and convergences that drive the plot—but that’s also a selling point to those who like thrillers governed by the laws of melodrama, not real life.
It’s tempting to uncover hidden depths in The Deep End—the Oedipal undercurrents, for example—but in truth, the film’s genre tweaks are merely distractions. It’s just a crooked melodrama with a strong central performance, exceptional visuals and a clever story to tell. Margaret might be in over her head, and we can’t wait to see if she’ll drown.
The Deep End (R) *** Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Starring Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic and Jonathan Tucker.