starring Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic, Jonathan Tucker, Peter Donat
screenplay by Scott McGehee & David Siegel, based on the short story "The Blank Wall" by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
directed by McGehee & Siegel
by Walter Chaw There is a moment at the very beginning of Scott McGehee and David Siegel's The Deep End wherein our maternal heroine Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton) fills in a crossword puzzle line with "glacier." It is an early clue to Margaret's glacial temperament, the cool blue colour suffusions that dominate the film's lighting schemes, and, unfortunately, the feeling of icy detachment one experiences during the course of the film. The Deep End is neither a noir nor a Hitchcockian thriller, but rather a somewhat conventional, vaguely derivative Mildred Pierce-ian estrogen melodrama that plays a lot like a Lifetime bodice-ripper written by David Mamet. It is essentially a lifeless version of Blood Simple, complete with misunderstandings, extortion, and a hide-the-corpse intrigue inspired by the urge to protect a loved one. Not to say The Deep End is a bad film, exactly, rather it's a forgettable one that is remarkable only for its almost complete lack of distinction.
Margaret lives in a beautiful house on beautiful Lake Tahoe with her father-in-law Jack (Peter Donat), teenage daughter Paige (Tamara Hope), and two sons: seventeen-year-old Beau (Jonathan Tucker) and little Dylan (Jordon Dorrance). When Beau wrecks his car after spending an evening out underage drinking at the club "The Deep End," Margaret begins to suspect that Beau has not only fallen in with the wrong crowd, but also might be homosexual. Opening with Margaret asking sleazy club-owner Darby Reese (Josh Lucas) to stop associating with her son, The Deep End turns on an argument and an accident that results in an untimely death. A few predictable and slow-developing twists later and a tall, dark, and handsome gentleman, Alek Spera ("E.R." heartthrob Goran Visnjic), appears at Margaret's jealously-guarded doorstep with a videotape, an offer, and an unlikely crush.
The ever-mounting complexities of The Deep End are best described as taking the form of a dark comedy of errors, sporting a cool matriarch presiding at the chaotic center of a series of decomposing orbits. Her father-in-law's frail health, her son's sexual confusion, the task of raising $50,000 in two days, a little matter of a corpse to dispose of, a blue corvette to ditch--each event is handled with the same kind of practical aplomb by the unflappable Margaret, who, despite being a perfectly able woman, nonetheless needs the help of a good man when all's said and done. With crusty old Jack as the occasional comic relief, and Alek the foreign male with the power to save, the most startling thing about The Deep End is that it begins to take on the character dynamics of Chicken Run.
That being said, the main problems of The Deep End lie with the utter conventionality of its thriller plot, the languid pacing, the distracted performances, and the stutter-patter dialogue that recalls the metered, imploded repetitions of Mamet. Swinton reprises the carefully-cultivated frigidity that she has worn for over fifteen years in chilly arthouse period productions, while Visnjic offers up a variation of the handsome and sensitive rake of his television doctor persona. There is even a sly reference to Visnjic's day job in a witty scene (the best of the movie) in which Alek is compelled to perform CPR on a fallen enemy. The star of the show, though, is Jonathan Tucker. With the everyman quality of a very young Tom Hanks, he manages to convey a depth of emotion despite the removed feeling of the script and the cold cinematography. Beau Hall's struggles with his sexual identity and his feelings of loyalty towards his mother lend the film moments of startling suture that it otherwise lacks, serving mainly to remind just how distant The Deep End feels in its moments of purported tension. It's a great shame that Tucker isn't given more time to develop his character beyond an arched brow and a night's indiscretion viewed from afar.
The Deep End is a forgettable, if passable, entertainment. It fails to be gripping, fails to be original, fails to maintain its credibility, and, in placing all of its eggs in Swinton's stoic basket, mistakes a yeoman's dedication to technical excellence and sober restraint for depth of character. Granted, the casting of Swinton is probably the only thing keeping The Deep End from descending into mawkishness, but it comes at the cost of a winning humanity to anchor the film's emotional center. There's not enough pulp in this pulper, a leaden piece of fluff that doesn't offend so much as dedicatedly underwhelm. It is a thriller without thrills and an illicit sex intrigue without titillation. Its main character is a simmering kettle that never comes to a boil. The Deep End is the very example of a bland cinematic meal that leaves you hungry for something more substantial as soon as it's over. Given the potential for meatiness inherent in its premise, that is a great shame. Originally published: August 22, 2001.