Review by Kim Hollis
September 19, 2001
Sometimes the quiet films are the most satisfying ones.
In 2000, one of the most tenderly-rewarding films to hit theaters was the Oscar-nominated You Can Count on Me, which was a purely character-driven picture with tremendous performances by Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, and even young Rory Culkin. It was a film that touched emotions rather than pumping adrenaline to achieve a desired effect.
While The Deep End could never hope to match the refreshing and gentle realism presented to us by the characters in You Can Count on Me, it is similarly soft, serene and subtle, and it achieves all this while also being a film of suspense and intensity.
The Deep End tells the story of Margaret Hall, a soccer mom who, like so many other mothers, is fully invested in the lives of her children. She lives in an idyllic setting on the lake in Tahoe and her oldest son, Beau, is a talented musician who is in the running for a scholarship to a prestigious university. In the opening minutes of the film, we also discover that Beau has a secret. He's been furtively sneaking off to Reno to party with a boyfriend named Darby (Josh Lucas, who also played a bad seed in You Can Count on Me), but circumstances cause his skeleton to come out of the cupboard. Within the first few scenes of the film, we learn that Margaret has visited Darby and asked him to stop seeing her son. Darby agrees, but only if Margaret will pay him off. After she informs her son about this course of events, a chain reaction is set off that forms the backbone for the remainder of the movie, as Beau's lover shows up for a late-night tryst. The two argue, and start to scuffle. Beau walks away in anger, and Darby falls to a somewhat gruesome death after leaning on a railing on the pier.
The following morning, Margaret discovers Darby's body impaled on the anchor of the family boat and assumes the worst, but maternal instinct kicks in strongly and she decides to protect her son. As desperate people are wont to do in hurried times of crisis, she makes a decision that winds up being a poor one as she loads the body into the boat, takes it out to the middle of the lake, and pushes it to the bottom. Unfortunately, this area of the lake isn't particularly deep, and a passing fisherman quickly discovers the body.
Suddenly, Margaret finds herself faced with the threat of blackmail by two individuals who knew about Beau's close relationship with the deceased and who also have evidence to back their claims. From there, the movie is less psychological thriller and more a character study, as we learn more about Margaret and the unexpected relationship she is forced to develop with her blackmailer.
I started off my review with a comment about quiet films. From the plot description above, it would certainly sound unlikely that The Deep End would succeed on such a level. But it does, for many reasons.
First and foremost in these factors are the laudable performances by nearly all of the movie's lead characters. Tilda Swinton is stunningly convincing as the mother who will give her very life for her children. She never plays the role in an overt or obvious manner; in fact, it would have been easy for Margaret to become a caricature of a harried mother in other, hammier hands. Swinton establishes her feelings for her children with understated gazes, soft touches and, when necessary, frantic trepidation. A woman dealing with impending calamity on her own (her husband is in the military and is unreachable because he is at sea), Margaret goes through a believable array of emotions as she deals with catastrophe after catastrophe, and Swinton alternately displays shock, horror and composure in precisely the right places.
Goran Visnjic's Alek Spera is as compelling a character I have seen in recent cinema (and that's not just because he's hunky). He plays the blackmailer who is responsible for the actual extortion of cash from Margaret, and to delve deeper into the reasons he is so intriguing would possibly spoil some of the events that lead to the story's climax.
Margaret's tormented son is played admirably by Jonathan Tucker. He is able to convey tremendous emotion simply through facial expression and body language, rather than an abundance of dialogue. The aforementioned Josh Lucas is an excellent smug and smarmy creep, though his time onscreen is brief.
Giles Nuttgens' cinematography shows a soft, gentle, and stylish touch, if that makes sense. The scenic images are almost soothing, and provide excellent contrast for the few times when it is necessary to kick the action up a couple of notches. The story itself is adapted by co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel from Elizabeth Sanxay Holding's novel, The Blank Wall, and while I have seen a few complaints here and there that Margaret's actions are unrealistic, I actually believe quite the opposite. Desperation leads people to extraordinary measures where consequences are not always given due consideration until well after the fact. I thought the film emphasized this nicely, and in a number of ways.
That's not to say the story is without its flaws. One plot point involving Margaret's father-in-law feels thrown in for the convenience of speedily advancing certain elements of the story. The denouement is a bit unsatisfying as well, since after character development has been so profound throughout the course of the film, the goods aren't quite delivered in a completely gratifying manner.
Nonetheless, I found The Deep End to be delightful. I appreciate and admire films that don't feel the need to hit you over the head with themes and stereotypes to drive home their messages. Instead, this movie gives the viewer a light push as it slowly reveals its layers through character development and the genuine tension displayed through its stars' dynamic performance.