The Deep End



USA 2001
direction/script : David Siegel, Scott McGehee
(based on novel The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding)
producers include : Siegel, McGehee
cinematography : Giles Nuttgens
editing : Laura Zuckerman
music : Peter Nashel
lead actors : Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic, Jonathan Tucker, Peter Donat
99 minutes

The Deep End is an old-fashioned psychological drama dressed up as a glacially cool, modern suspense thriller. There are classy elements to keep the viewer distracted from the plot’s shortcomings, resulting in an absorbing piece of entertainment, as limpid and shallow as the glassy waters of Lake Tahoe in which Margaret Hall (Swinton) dumps the corpse of Darby Reese (Josh Lucas), her son’s gay lover, setting herself up for blackmail by Reno gambler Alek Sperra (Visnjic).

Margaret mistakenly presumes Reese was killed by his lover, her teenage son Beau (Tucker). By the time she finds out the truth, it’s too late: her actions make Beau, and herself, look guilty enough for Alek to take advantage. Her husband away at sea, Margaret struggles to find with the cash, and Alek pays a visit to her house – just as her father-in-law (Donat) suffers a heart attack. When Alek helps save the old man’s life, his relationship with Margaret starts to undergo a surprising transformation.

Leaving aside the disruptive awkwardness of seeing ER star Visnjic performing medical heroics, emphasis-shift sees Deep End concentrating less on the thriller mechanics, and more on the interplay between the characters: just as in this year’s other Tahoe-set semi-noir thriller-adaptation, Sean Penn’s The Pledge. But The Deep End just as strongly recalls In The Bedroom, with death abruptly turning a middle-class household upside down, forcing ‘ordinary’ people into unexpectedly transgressive behaviour.

Thankfully, Deep End has none of Bedroom‘s distracting political agenda. Instead the writer-directors focus on making Alek and Margaret’s the most tantalisingly ambiguous, unconsummated courtship since Lecter and Starling – there’s an almost-kiss so strange and intense that only retrospectively do you appreciate the daftness of its circumstances. It helps that Swinton and Visnjic are so thoroughly convincing – though it must be said that Tucker is at least as impressive in a much less showy role.

The material, based on an old novel previously filmed in the 1940s as The Reckless Moment, will please fans of Ripley novelist Patricia Highsmith. There’s the arbitrary accidental death; the self-implication of a non-guilty party; the resulting Hitchcockian transfer of guilt – though Highsmith would surely have made both blackmailer and blackmailee male. And she would have delivered a more satisfying resolution: the climax is one of several aspects of Deep End that audiences probably shouldn’t examine too closely.

The directors would rather we wallow in cinematographer Nuttgens’ images: and wallow is the word. It’s water, water everywhere, from the opening scene in the woozily aqueous Reno gay-bar that provides the film with its title we’re constantly surrounded by imahes of waves, seascapes, submersions, inundations. Michael Mann would be proud of all this neon bleu marine, and the film-makers clearly know how to give their work a unifying visual theme, but is it supposed to add up to something, or merely keep us dazzled?

Likewise, what does it mean when we’re pointedly shown Margaret filling in the word ‘glacier’ in a crossword? That she’s an icily indomitable force of nature, full of hidden depths? She’s clearly a formidable, resilient, resourceful character, which makes her crucial decision to dump Darby’s corpse in ten feet of water all the more baffling. As a boat-owning, outdoorsy Tahoe resident, she must know that the famously clear lake is, in places, a hundred foot deep. So why leave the corpse in ten feet of water, his features clearly visible from the surface? Who’s being carelessly stupid: the character, or just the film-makers: why not go for the deep end, if you know it’s there?

16th December, 2001
(seen Dec-14-01, UGC Sheffield)

by Neil Young
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