Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic

Taking film noir material and turning it inside out, "The Deep End" is a beautifully made melodrama that succeeds on formal levels more than it does with emotion. Filmmaking team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel have followed up with a more accessible work that should be able to ride a fest life to modest B.O. on the specialized circuit.

Taking film noir material and turning it inside out visually and morally, “The Deep End” is an absorbing, beautifully made melodrama that succeeds on formal levels more than it does with suspense or emotion. Eight years after their artily provocative debut feature, “Suture,” San Francisco-based filmmaking team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel have followed up with a more generally accessible work that should be able to ride some good reviews and a healthy fest life to modest B.O. on the specialized circuit and internationally.

Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s novel “The Blank Wall,” serialized in Ladies Home Journal in 1947, was turned by director Max Ophuls into a dark meller called “The Reckless Moment” two years later. Both book and film concerned a blackmail attempt against a mother centering on her daughter.

Two striking changes are noticeable at the outset. Rather than being set in a dingy L.A. beach community, “The Deep End” takes place along the pristine shores of Lake Tahoe, where Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton), her three kids and father-in-law live in an attractive, if not lavish, house. Furthermore, the daughter has been transformed into a gay teenage son who, while still in the throes of coming to terms with his sexuality, becomes the focal point for sordid intrigue involving those cinematic stalwarts, sex and murder.

Learning of her son’s proclivities courtesy of a drunken auto accident, Margaret drops into a gay club in nearby Reno to tell the sleazy Darby Reese (Josh Lucas) to leave her son Beau (Jonathan Tucker) alone. Nonetheless, the slimeball comes by the Hall home late that night for some action, only to provoke a fight with Beau in the boathouse.

Next morning, Margaret finds Darby’s body down on the beach, an anchor through his chest. With barely a thought, she lugs the corpse into a small boat, motors out amidst some rocks and dumps it into clear, shallow water, where it certainly will soon be found. After driving Darby’s Corvette to a distant parking lot, Margaret, whose Navy officer husband is away on duty in the Atlantic, presumes to return to her normal routine, which involves chauffeuring the kids around to school and, at the moment, trying hard to break through to her balky oldest son.

All of this is presented in vivid dramatic terms. Although clearly unnerved by the gruesome recent events, Margaret is strangely purposeful in dealing with them. As if taking its cue from the waters of Lake Tahoe, the visual style possesses an almost crystalline purity, with the unspoiled sky, lush timberland and burnished wood surfaces of the Hall abode perhaps reflecting something of Margaret’s uncorrupted nature and, in any event, contrasting with the hard, uninviting look of Reno.

Shortly, however, a stranger turns up at Margaret’s door. Good-looking but festooned with a gold necklace and a tumbling-dice neck tattoo, Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic) startles Margaret by demanding $50,000 in exchange for a videotape he forces her to watch that shows Beau being sodomized by Darby.

Although without ready means of obtaining the cash, Margaret agrees to give it to him within 24 hours. But in the film’s pivotal, and weirdest, scene (and one that will play as a very funny in-joke for Visnjic’s “ER” fans), Alek arrives to collect the money just after father-in-law Jack (Peter Donat) has suffered a heart attack. Dropping his criminal agenda and reacting like a proper human being, Alek helps revive the old man, marking the awakening of a compassionate streak in Alek that ultimately provides the film with its unexpected moral spin.

Pic’s core concerns are expressed in an intense scene in which Margaret counters Alek’s complaint that she isn’t trying hard enough to raise the money with an illustration of how her preoccupations in life — tending to the essentials for her children — are so very different from his, which involve no responsibility for others. One presumes rationally explaining to a criminal that his behavior is misguided won’t prove very persuasive. But here it does, prompting Margaret to open up to Alek and clearing the way for Alek’s ruthless boss, Nagle (Raymond Barry), to take charge of the collection himself.

Although the brainy manner in which McGehee and Siegel retrofit genre elements keeps the film intellectually stimulating and will give critics plenty to write about, their style possesses a certain stiffness that precludes the development of audience-pleasing suspense or excitement. The writer-directors go through the motions in a couple of modest fight scenes and have in hand the dramatic staple of the household being threatened by thugs, but their decision to go the other way with the material drains the final reel of tension, making for an emotionally flat wrap-up.

Diluted ultimate impact also has something to do with the criminals’ interest in what today seem like curiously two-bit stakes; given the modest amount, the presumed existence of more lucrative illegal activities than blackmailing a middle-class mother and the unrevealed nature of Nagle’s urgent need for the cash, the latter’s abrupt ferocity feels simply like a leftover narrative construct.

The adventurous English thesp Swinton was a fine and unusual choice to play Margaret. Most actresses would have emphasized the obvious emotional trauma felt by this mother forced to cope with extraordinary circumstances on her own; Swinton naturally hits these notes, but they are always tempered by her steely intelligence and an overriding expression of her sense of priorities, which makes it clear she will never give up her attempt to reconnect with her son.

Visnjic and Tucker register well in the other primary roles.

Even more than in “Suture,” the stylistic elements, led by Giles Nuttgens’ highly refined cinematography, have been meticulously fused to serve a carefully conceived artistic end.

The Deep End

Production

An i5 Picture. Produced by Scott McGehee, David Siegel. Executive producer, Robert H. Nathan. Co-producer, Laura Greenlee. Directed, written by Scott McGehee, David Siegel, based on the novel "The Blank Wall" by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color, Panavision widescreen), Giles Nuttgens; editor, Lauren Zuckerman; music, Peter Nashel; production designer, Kelly McGehee; co-production designer, Christopher Tandon; set decorator, Nancy Wenz; costumes, Sabrina Rosen; sound (Dolby Digital), Robert Eber; supervising sound editors, John Nutt, David Bergad; associate producers, Mindy Marin, Eileen Jones; assistant director, David N. Schrager; casting, Marin. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 2001. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Margaret Hall - Tilda Swinton Alek Spera - Goran Visnjic Beau Hall - Jonathan Tucker Carlie Nagle - Raymond Barry Darby Reese - Josh Lucas Jack Hall - Peter Donat Paige Hall - Tamara Hope Dylan Hall - Jordan Dorrance
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