The Deep End ...?
September 27, 2001
BY ADAM KEMPENAAR
"Let's make it 4. I have to pick the kids up."
Taken out of context, it's a rather unremarkable bit of movie dialogue. When the character speaking the lines has just been told she must hand over $50,000 at 5 tomorrow or else have her teenage son implicated in the murder of his gay lover, the words become more mysterious. She doesn't have the money, nor is she likely to get it. But that doesn't change the fact that she still has to be a mom.
In the case of The Deep End, an engaging thriller from directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the mom in question is Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton). With her husband endlessly away at sea, Margaret lives with her three kids and father-in-law along the idyllic shores of Lake Tahoe. Inside the house, things aren't so peaceful.
Her 17-year-old son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker), is a talented musician with a bright future, but he's also struggling with his homosexuality and spending too much time with his nefarious, 30-year-old boyfriend, Darby Reese (Josh Lucas).
When a drunken Darby visits Beau late one night, the two get into a fight near the water. As Beau stalks away, Darby manages to fall off the dock and kill himself. Early the next morning, Margaret discovers the body and immediately assumes that her son is responsible. Without hesitation, she sets out to protect him by dumping the body in the lake.
Things start to spiral out of control when the body is discovered, and a man named Alex Spera (Goran Visnjic of "ER") shows up with evidence that he believes will prove Beau was involved in Darby's death. To keep quiet, he wants $50,000.
As intricate as it might sound, one of the strengths of The Deep End is that it doesn't sacrifice character in the name of plot. The suspense doesn't come from fast-paced car chases or overly choreographed fight scenes but from watching real people -- people you might even recognize from your daily life -- struggling to overcome impossible circumstances.
And McGehee and Siegel skillfully advance the tension without relying on typical movie clichÃ©s, such as heavy-handed music. One of the most effective scenes in the movie is when Margaret realizes that in her haste to hide the body, she failed to notice Darby's car. She has no choice but to go back, dive in the icy water, and dig the keys out of the dead man's coat pocket. The whole scene is eerily silent, save for the soothing sound of the water, which clashes perfectly with Margaret's frenzied mindset.
Swinton (Orlando, The Beach) is stunning as Margaret, a woman who is never quite able to believe what she is going through but deals with it methodically, as if she were planning a cookout for her youngest son's little league team.
Perhaps one flaw with the film is that Margaret never directly asks her son if he really did kill Darby -- a fact that many viewers will surely have a tough time swallowing. Can we really believe that their relationship is so dysfunctional that she would just start dumping bodies into lakes and hocking her jewelry without finding out if it was all really necessary?
But in posing the question "How far would you go to protect your child?," the real issue at the core of the film is the unconditional bond that exists between a parent and child. Arguably, Margaret's tragic flaw is that she loves her son too much. It doesn't really matter whether he actually committed the crime. All that matters is that she keeps him safe.