Friday, October 31, 2014

Off the Shelf: The Deep End (2001)

The Deep End gives off a sweet malevolence; it softly seduces you even as it fills you with dread. Unlike some popular thrillers, The Deep End doesn't nudge you with mechanical scare tactics to provide tension. The picture is both intelligently suspenseful and an incongruously witty chamber drama. Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the co-writers and co-directors, quietly and shrewdly build our apprehension by having us slowly come to empathize with a main character who paves her road to hell with the best of intentions.

Tilda Swinton (I Am Love, The Grand Budapest Hotel) plays Margaret Hall, a lonely housewife in Lake Tahoe, who spends her days dutifully carrying out all those mundane domestic chores of motherhood. Her husband, meanwhile, is a naval officer who spends his days carrying out his duties at sea. In short time, though, Margaret finds herself at sea emotionally when she discovers that her eldest son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker), is gay. She also comes to see that his lover, Darby (Josh Lucas), is a rather disreputable character who might bring harm to her son. Margaret initially pleads with Darby to stay away from Beau, but he ignores her, and later makes a midnight creep from Reno to Lake Tahoe. When Beau gets into a skirmish with his lover on the family dock, Darby is accidently killed. In the morning, Margaret finds the body and assumes that her son has committed murder. While Beau has no knowledge of of what happened, Margaret does what any loving mother might do; she tries to clean up the mess and protect her family. Based on the little-known 1940s novel, The Blank Wall, by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (which was also the source for Max Ophuls 1949 film noir, The Reckless Moment), The Deep End is largely anchored by Swinton's complexly layered performance.

In the Twenties, Holding was known for penning a number of romantic novels, but she turned to detective thrillers after the stock market crash of 1929. In her noirs, Holding explored the roles of marriage and motherhood, and she described the character Margaret Hall as having "the resourcefulness of the mother, the domestic woman, accustomed to emergencies." That's exactly how Swinton interprets her. Margaret sees her tasks – trying to bury the body in the lake, wiping away all the evidence, fighting off a darkly handsome blackmailer, Alec (Goran Visnjic), who is set on ruining her son – as challenges to her abilities to be a good mother, rather than imprudent acts that could lead to catastrophe.

Joan Bennett in The Reckless Moment (1949)

In The Reckless Moment, the mother (Joan Bennett) commits murder to protect her daughter from an unsavoury older man. By modernizing the story so that the character's now a son who is homosexual, McGehee and Siegel, in The Deep End, hint at the unacknowledged subliminal ties he has with his mother, bonds that are tinged with sharp ambiguity. Beau, an aspiring trumpet player, has a future his mother fears could be jeopardized by his jaunt out of the closet. By making Darby's death an accident, rather than a murder, it gives Margaret's actions the appearance of desperately painful acts of a protective parent cleaning up the messes left by her child. Although Tilda Swinton's performance dominates the movie, she's ably supported by a good cast. Visnjic's Alec, who at first comes across as an intimidating stud with an incriminating videotape, slowly begins to develop a deeper empathy with Margaret. Alec is basically a man whom you feel life has dealt some bad hands to. (He has a tattoo of a pair of dice on his neck, as if he hopes that one day they would magically role sevens.) Josh Lucas is resourceful, too, playing a young man at odds with his adolescent libido. Peter Donat, as Margaret's live-in father-in-law, provides a few peppy scenes where he seems to be alternately hyperaware and totally oblivious to what is happening right under his nose.

The Deep End was the second feature film from Scott McGehee and David Siegel (their most recent is a 2012 adaptation of Henry James's 1897 novel, What Maisie Knew, which is also about the trials and bonds between parents and their children). Their first film, Suture (1993), was about a white murderer who tried to assume the identity of his estranged half-brother (who happened to be black). But Suture was one of those intellectual puzzles, like Christopher Nolan's highly overrated Memento, that's so caught up in being clever that it barely begins to make dramatic sense. But McGehee and Siegel aren't hiding any cards up their sleeves here. The Deep End is such an assured film noir that it actually takes place, for the most part, in the crisp brightness of daylight rather than the blackness of night. After all, the trepidation the picture inspires isn't the kind that allows anyone to hide in the dark.

Kevin Courrier is currently doing a lecture series at the Toronto JCC Miles Nadal on The Beatles on Monday evenings at 7pm. Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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