How far will a mother stretch to shield her teen son from the fallout of a fatal brush with evil? In The Deep End, carpool mom Margaret Hall (played by art-house staple Tilda Swinton) barely blinks before plunging—in the name of family security and respectability—into the moral and statutory minefields of hiding a corpse.The Deep End is based on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s 1940’s novel The Blank Wall, which was filmed in 1949 by Max Ophüls as The Reckless Moment. This latest incarnation takes the basic elements of film noir (peril, fear, greed, obsession, covert rendezvous, a den-of-sin nightclub, handguns and cigarettes) and straps them to a blackmail attempt involving sweaty, videotaped sodomy. The film is an orgy of blue-hued metaphors in which a gay young man, instead of just skeletons, peeks figuratively from the family closet as menace breeds in both the inky night and glaring Sierra Nevada sunshine.
Margaret (the previous Joan Bennett role) is the wife of a naval officer who is out to sea. She lives in a beachfront Tahoe City home with her three children and father-in-law (Peter Donat). Her 17-year-old gay son Beau (the Virgin Suicides’ Jonathan Tucker) is on the verge of earning a music scholarship. He also has been socializing with sleazy 30-year-old Reno nightclub owner Darby (Josh Lucas).
Beau was involved in a drinking-driving accident while with Darby so Margaret visits the oily seducer’s club near Circus Circus and warns him to stay away from her son. Darby reciprocates by visiting the Hall household late one night. He coaxes Beau to meet him in the boathouse. They talk about Margaret knowing about their carnal activity (“She’s a mother, not a moron,” says Darby). They argue. Beau flees to the house. Darby falls into the lake.
Darby’s swagger is replaced with rigor mortis by the time Margaret finds him the next morning. Margaret has also seen Beau’s cut lip so she instinctively moves the dead Darby into her aluminum boat and dumps him in a Lake Tahoe cove. Later she strips to her cotton skivvies and dives into the watery grave to rifle his pockets. All the while, she wears a mask of stoic maternal resolve that is soon tested by escalating confrontations with the blackmailers (including ER’s Goran Visnjic in the James Mason role), who demand $50,000 for the tape of Darby buggering Beau.
San Francisco writer-director-producers Scott McGehee and David Siegel (Suture) strain our suspension of disbelief at times (sinking Darby in a shallow cove is the first suspect plot point) and the film’s ending is rushed and disappointing. These flaws are offset by tense atmosphere, dark humor (Darby’s blue-corvette license plate reads “6 FT BLO”), and a disquieting sound score. The characters and their duplicitous relationships (Does blackmailer Alek see a lover or mother figure in Margaret?) are riveting, and share bloodlines with the folks of Dead Calm, Apartment Zero and Blood Simple. And whoever thought a film from the cinematographer (Giles Nuttgens) of Battlefield Earth could be so seductive and elegant? Swinton (Caravaggio, Conceiving Ada), with her red hair and chalky complexion, evokes both external blandness and inner turmoil. Her presence as a woman who first protected her son from his father and now believes she must protect him from himself dominates the film. Visnjic is excellent as the hood with a dice tattoo on his neck and a blossoming fondness for Margaret.
The Deep End is a lurid melodrama ripe with color (there’s shades of blue everywhere) and water imagery (people are reflected in a faucet drop, a dropped water cooler bottle explodes). It is about the unspoken bond between parent and sibling, misread actions, sexual exploitation, momentary lapses in judgment that echo for a lifetime.
Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once asserted “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” The Deep End has both, but Swinton’s sterling performance as a woman battling to restore order to her life makes the firearm just another superfluous prop.