Every family has its secrets, mostly things like failed businesses, 18th-century horse thieves hidden in the family tree or DWI arrests. Sometimes they’re more serious–even tragic and life-threatening. The Deep End is a film about the latter and the measures that a mother will take to protect her family. It’s a spare and stylish thriller that intrigues with intelligence rather than cheap shocks.
Margaret Hill (Tilda Swinton, Orlando) is a lonely Lake Tahoe housewife whose naval officer husband spends more time at sea than he does at home. When the body of her teenage son Beau’s predatory older lover washes up on the beach by their house, she’s confronted with a choice – go to the authorities, or protect her son? Even though she doesn’t know (or want to know, apparently) the details of the incident, Margaret takes the protective route, and begins a labyrinth of measures to hide the body and ensure her son’s safety. Then another snag surfaces in the form of Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic, TVs ER) who knows even more secrets about Beau and has a videotape to prove them. He’s demanding $50,000 to keep quiet. But while Margaret’s world spirals downward from the mounting complications and her growing despair, her resolve and determination increase as she begins to circle the familial wagons to protect the people and relationships she loves.
Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel show a placid yet menacing world; the postcard beauty and tranquil events of small-town Tahoe City are a stark contrast to the sordid details Margaret must deal with. Water is used as a frequent metaphor, scenes of calm surfaces betraying the turmoil beneath, water droplets held together only by surface tension embodying the strains on Margaret and her family. The film brims with quietly growing anxiety that is very rarely released; there are no screeching cats jumping out from behind closet doors here. So by the end we feel drained, just as Margaret must. It’s an effective use of silence and tranquility to evoke dread.
McGehee’s script is based loosely on Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s serialized novel "The Blank Wall", which was originally made into the 1949 feature The Reckless Moment. In the earlier film the relationship between mother (Joan Bennett) and blackmailer (James Mason) turns romantic early on. Here, there’s more tension.Spera is certainly one of the most humane (and unskilled) blackmailers to appear on screen but the scenes between him and Margaret are strictly business, at least at first. Unfortunately their scenes together often don’t ring true.They don’t contain conversations, but instead alternating orations more appropriate for a television soap opera. And the film quickly succumbs to the ailment where most lead characters refuse to communicate and often lose all their faculties of logic and common sense in order to act in a manner that advances the story.
Swinton’s performance is an unassuming juggernaut of strength. Her Margaret Hill is a quiet lioness in human form, often world-weary but always more than able to step up to the biggest challenges that Spera, her son, or life can provide – all the while continuing to shuffle kids in car pools and take care of meals and the laundry. There’s a telling scene where Spera wants to set up a meeting which he schedules it for five o’clock. Without blinking or deliberating Margaret has him change it to four because "later on, I have the kids." In her scenes alone as she ponders what to do next there’s no hand-wringing, no grand drama. Just the calm but efficient demeanor of a mother whose role and devotion are always crystal clear, even if the solution to her problems is not. It’s like there’s a quiet dynamo constantly humming below her surface, waiting to crackle into action. The plot holes and clunky speechifying may detract from the film’s power, but The Deep End is easily worth seeing solely for Swinton’s impressively resolute performance.
– Bob Aulert