'The Deep End': Infinite Ripples In Still Waters

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2001

"The Deep End" is femme noir, a dark, woman-driven thriller that becomes a tense game of cat-and-mouse between the steely heroine and the resident him-fatale. A murder brings the couple together, but the suspense isn't in whodunit, but in what goes unsaid. The real story lies beneath the surface of this superbly acted, strangely moving film.

Tilda Swinton, much praised for her work in the gender-bending "Orlando," gives a bravura performance as Margaret Hall, a Lake Tahoe housewife and mother of three who keeps her wits about her even as she covers up a murder to protect hearth and home. And she does so with as little muss and fuss as possible.

The repressed wife of a naval officer who spends months on end at sea, Margaret takes on yet another domestic crisis on her own. Upon learning that Beau (Jonathan Tucker), her teenage son, is having a sexual relationship with Darby (Josh Lucas), a sleazy Reno nightclub owner, she warns the abusive predator to stay away from her child.

Darby ignores her warning and meets with the 17-year-old that same night. Early the next morning, Margaret finds Darby's body on the beach in front of the house. Assuming that Beau killed him, she wraps the corpse in a tarp, maneuvers the dead weight into the family's small motorboat and heads off to dump it in the lake.

Margaret faces an even greater test when Alek Spera ("E.R." regular Goran Visnjic), the world's most gorgeous extortionist, shows up at her door with videotaped proof of her son's affair with Darby. Unless she can come up with $50,000 by the next day, Alek will take the evidence to the police.

Alek repeatedly returns to the house as Margaret struggles to raise the money. Beau begins to suspect that she is having an affair with the blackmailer. Ironically, his mistaken assumption, along with hers, restores harmony between Margaret and her favorite child. Still, nobody but Alek will ever know the true extent of this mother's love.

That's the thing that really gets you: Kids never know what their parents are going through. Margaret's daughter is oblivious to her mother's obvious stress. She's all wrapped up in her ballet recital. Her youngest son is desolate when Margaret won't help him search for his baseball mitt. They don't know that mommy has just fed the fishes.

Some filmmakers would have played these scenes for laughs, others for tears, but the team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel see selflessness in the juxtaposition. This is an unlikely second work by the pair, who dealt with mistaken identity in "Suture," a gimmicky 1993 film aimed at the avant-garde. Eight years later, the long-lost art-house darlings turn their sights on the hoariest of subjects and they do so with dignity and style.

"The Deep End," based on a 1947 novel by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, might well have become another "Beaches," had they cast the wrong actress or taken a softer tone. The mood is almost solemn, the pace borders on processional and Swinton brings the stoicism of "American Gothic's" farm wife to this resourceful soccer mom. Yet, the emotions pass over her face, albeit as fleetingly as fast-moving clouds over the icy Nevada lake.

The actress doesn't ask viewers to like the distant Margaret, only to understand her. And we do, even if we never quite warm up to her frosty exterior. Thanks to the potent chemistry between Swinton and Visnjic, we understand that she has sacrificed far more than even she knows.

The Deep End (99 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for nudity, sex and some violence.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company