Depth Perception

Dive into 'The Deep End.'

There are a lot of different levels percolating under a lot of different surfaces in The Deep End, even when it comes to the film's title. Taken at its most literal, The Deep End is the sleazy gay bar where all of the movie's action starts on its dangerous, spiraling course. Then there's the actual water thing, but more on that later. Last but most definitely not least is that The Deep End is an entirely appropriate title for a cool little thriller that constantly threatens to throw us in over our heads. This is that rare movie that repeatedly allows us the thrill of almost drowning in a sea of mysterious possibilities, of information that adds up in any number of improbable ways. The thrill is made even more palpable because The Deep End dangles us right at the brink of losing us, but never quite lets us sink. The film is always ready with some new twist or turn that pulls us up at the last moment and out into what appears, at least temporarily, to be some zone of relative clarity and maybe even resolution. And then, like the proverbial rollercoaster Hollywood blurbsters are always babbling about, the movie plunges us right back into some even scarier and more convoluted place.

The Deep End is the first film in more than seven years from the writing-directing team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel, and it's good enough to make us wish these guys could somehow find it in themselves to be just a wee bit more prolific. Like McGehee and Siegel's 1993 debut, the stylish but maddeningly elusive Suture, The Deep End is a rigorously skewed mystery of a distinctly metaphysical sort, less a whodunit and more a whydunit. As if you couldn't already tell, The Deep End is a far cry from the sort of thrillers Hollywood typically produces, but it is just commercial enough (certainly infinitely more so than the ultra-arty Suture) that, with any luck, a whole new, sizable audience will soon be telling their friends about the unique pleasures of McGehee and Siegel's handiwork.

Tilda Swinton (the translucent-skinned, somewhat elfin-looking English actress best known for her remarkable performance as the dual-gendered lead in Orlando) stars as Margaret Hall, an ordinary California housewife who shares a home at the edge of Lake Tahoe with her father-in-law, her young daughter and 17-year-old son Beau (Jonathan Tucker). Margaret's husband is a naval officer who's away at sea, which means that when the bad things begin happening in The Deep End — and happen they do — Mom's the one there to clean up the mess.

The Deep End — the bar, that is, not the watery zone or the metaphysical state of being — is firmly situated on the wrong side of the tracks, and that's exactly where we find Mrs. Hall almost from the movie's first moments. More specifically, the bar's on the wrong side of the lake — in Reno, to be exact, on the rough and tumble Nevada side just opposite the Hall residence — and Margaret's journey from the pleasant haven of her California household to the vaguely ominous, neon netherworld of The Deep End smacks more of the sort of transgressive border crossing we might find in mythology than in Hollywood.

Margaret's trip to the bar is spurred on by concern for her son, Beau, a sensitive teen who's just beginning to come to grips with his gay sexuality, and who has recently taken to hanging out with a 30-ish piece of work named Darby — who, as it happens, is the charismatic but very nasty owner of The Deep End. Margaret and Darby exchange words, Darby later comes calling on Beau in the dead of night, and, before the movie's scarcely 15 minutes old, Darby winds up dead.

Perfect mom that she is, Margaret immediately does what she has to do to clean up what appears to be her boy's mess (efficiently tossing the body into the murky depths of Tahoe) but not quite quickly enough to stop the entrance of a blackmailer (Goran Visnijic of ER) with long lashes and a dangerous, dreamy look in his eye. From there, the complications and coincidences continue to mount (sometimes to the point of straining our credulity) as the film tosses off one odd little surprise after another.

One of the vaguest and most overused words in the film critics' lexicon (not to mention one of the most pretentious) is the term neo-noir, but it's hard to avoid trotting it out in connection with The Deep End. The movie is, in any number of ways, a 21st Century update of classic noir, albeit one that's been transposed, to fine effect, from the nocturnal city to the sun-dappled countryside. Gone are the dark alleys, claustrophobic corners and rain spattered, moonlit streets of typically urban noir; in their place are the airy gardens and pleasantly appointed, lake-front homes of rural Northern California.

McGehee and Siegel's knockout punch is that, in context with all the murky things that happen in The Deep End, the sunny, sprawling setting turns out to be every bit as ominous as the dark, cramped spaces typically associated with noir. In The Deep End, the comfortable, middle-class surroundings become creepy signifiers for all the dark and awful things lurking just beneath even the brightest and most ordinary of surfaces.

Likewise, the movie's main character, Margaret Hall, embodies the noir-ish maxim that bad things can happen to anyone at anytime — and that, in fact, even the "best" people, under the proper circumstances, are themselves quite capable of making those very bad things happen. Margaret is a female version of the classic noir everyman, an ordinary, law-abiding citizen who, in the imperceptible blink of an eye, passes from perfect, almost invisible normalcy to a state of unimaginable agitation, paranoia and dread, all spiraling outward from the moment she finds herself an accomplice to the most extreme of crimes. Before she even has a chance to assess what's happening, Swinton's character finds herself inexorably sucked down into — there it is again — the deep end. That place of no escape, where all the bodies are buried.

The book on which The Deep End is based — Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's 1947 novel The Blank Wall — is the same source material adapted by Max Ophuls for his legendary and little-seen 1949 noir melodrama, The Reckless Moment. I've never actually seen Ophuls' film (which, with the exception of a few elements, sounds fairly close to McGehee and Siegel's piece), although it's not for lack of trying. The Reckless Moment, to the best of my information, is not currently available on video or DVD in this country and hasn't been for ages.

It is almost impossible to get hold of in any way, shape or form, and, as of this writing, The Reckless Moment is Number One with a Bullet on this writer's all-time list of Movies I'd Give My Left Kidney to See. (And, if you'll allow me this one shameless but small indulgence, if any of you kind and incredibly savvy readers out there happen to have a line on this grand old slab of classic noir — well, you know where to reach me.) In the meantime, we have The Deep End to chew on, and that's more than enough to keep us all busy for the next little while.

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