The Deep End


Scott McGehee and David Siegel's feature debut Suture was memorable as a visually stunning drama that was more puzzling than it was engaging. Except for its smart look, that film hardly suggested that the duo could deliver so impressive a work as they have here in their sophomore outing.

The Deep End is a highly impressive and rewarding noir spin that involves what on the surface looks like an ordinary upper-middle-class family living in charming comfort on Lake Tahoe. Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton) is the head of the household, since her naval officer husband spends most of his time at sea. Her charges include, most importantly, her 17-year-old son Beau (Jonathan Tucker), two younger kids and her father-in-law.

Beau is a promising musician who is about to land a music scholarship to Wesleyan. He also has a very strained relationship with his mother, a problem that very well may have to do with the fact that he is gay. But a bigger problem arises when Margaret, after learning that Beau is involved with Darby (Josh Lucas), a sleazy nightclub owner from Reno, finds Darby's body near their home on the bank of the lake. Margaret then embarks on a cover-up of the death by trying to hide the body in the lake.

But two other louche characters--a handsome foreigner named Alek (Goran Visnjic) and his older partner in crime, Carlie (Raymond Barry)--suspect the cover-up and blackmail Margaret. Maybe worse, they have a crude videotape of Beau and Darby having sex. Much of the film's considerable tension derives from Margaret's attempt to find out the exact nature of Beau's involvement in Darby's death and also come up with the considerable amount that will keep Alek and Carlie quiet.

The Deep End excels on many levels, not least of which is the performances. Swinton, perhaps best known for her starring role in Orlando, may be British, but she's as convincingly American on the shores of Lake Tahoe as the proverbial pie. Tucker handles his difficult job convincingly: Beau is retiring, wounded, and must be acted upon. Yet with all this restraint, he manages to be very much alive.

Even the film's lesser roles are ably filled. Visnjic's Alek, whose basic goodness lies untapped until he meets Margaret, emerges a remarkably complex anti-hero. And even in his quiet role of Margaret's father-in-law, Peter Donat hits just the right notes of muted concern and distance.

Beyond its intriguing story and terrific acting, The Deep End offers exceptional style in both its visual and sound designs. Water is the metaphor here--its depth, mystery, power and proximity reflective of the lives and fates of the protagonists. Thus, Giles Nuttgens, who won the Best Cinematography Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival for the film, fills the broad canvas with fluid strokes, be they interior scenes of the very special Tahoe house or breathtakingly beautiful shots of the lake above and underwater. The oft-used aquatic hues of blue and green further serve the metaphor.

Peter Nashel's compositions, other selected music, and the real sounds of nature and the environment fix the tone as the film's aural component subtly enforces the pervasive atmosphere of beauty, menace, passion and ambiguity.

Filmmakers McGehee and Siegel are never in a hurry to tell their story. Yet such audacious confidence never bores. Yes, the very end of the film--which overstates its point about the mother/son relationship--veers from the effective pacing that preceded it. But this coda is a minor blip. The Deep End is a great triumph of craft and skill in an art almost as mysterious as Tahoe, one of this country's deepest lakes.

--Doris Toumarkine