The Deep End

| August 15, 2001

Several years ago, while working in England, and in the immediate (ithought geographically, hence emotionally distant) aftermath of the Simpson and Menendez trials, I stumbled across Before and After, a recent novel by Rosellen Brown. Maybe now I wouldn’t find it so profound, but at the time I was deeply disturbed by the book, wherein a teenaged boy is implicated in the death of his girlfriend, and the family (and reader) must deal with the possibility that he is a murderer. The novel stands for me along with Orson Scott Card’s The Lost Boys as one of the most painful reads because of its subject matter and laying bare of familial emotions and misguided actions. Both novels are about families torn apart, though, for significantly different reasons. Before and After was eventually made into a very disappointing film by Disney, a dramatic illustration of the wrong person for the job — or of a studio being completely out of touch with what made the novel so compelling. All bite, all ambiguity, all real suspense was substituted in that misguided adaptation for indignant righteousness.
So I wondered if the wealth of moral and emotional territory in such a scenario would even be broached in the adaptation of Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s 1947 novel The Blank Wall, now in theaters as The Deep End. Co-written and co-directed by David Siegel and Scott McGehee, perhaps best known for their directorial debut Suture, the mid-1940s story has been contemporized by changing the novel’s daughter into a gay teenaged son who has become involved with a more worldly and cynical night club owner, played by Josh Lucas, seen as another sort of sexual predator in Session 9. Rather than being torn apart, here we have a family that’s already fragmented. The father, away on a naval carrier, is ever absent from the family photographs. The son (Jonathan Tucker) is in over his head, naïve to his mother’s actions on his behalf in much the same way that he misunderstands the true nature of his lover. The mother, in effect, is treading water, simply maintaining her everyday life and only just beginning to realize how fragile it is.
The film capitalizes on the miscommunications and assumptions that we take for granted every day — except, in this case, they have dire consequences. Tilda Swinton (Orlando, The Beach) is being hailed for her performance as the mother who assumes her son has committed a murder and sets about to cover up the evidence. Unlike the book Before and After, but just like the film adaptation of that novel, we, the audience, know that the son is innocent. The moral implications are lessened for us, and the film isn’t really concerned with such considerations, though Swinton’s performance hints at them. The Deep End’s focus is a much smaller arena.
We are essentially watching a series of escalating actions all occurring because of the main characters’ inability to have frank conversations with each other. In fact, Margaret (Swinton) really only speaks honestly twice in the film — both times to strangers. The first time, confronting her son’s lover at his nightclub, is essentially what sets the wheels in motion, implicating her in the events that follow. The second time is her confession to Alek Spera (ER’s Goran Visnjic), the man who is blackmailing her, though it does include a lie, perhaps an indicator of his changing status in the story. The truth in this confession, though, sparked incredulous remarks among audience members as they exited the theater. Both scenes point to the irony that we can be most honest with those we neither know nor love.
This continual inability among Margaret, her father-in-law and son to talk to each other, to tell each other what is going on, and to speak the truth, is ultimately embraced when Beau finally tells her that he doesn’t need to know why she’s crying. All are left not-so-blissfully ignorant, each with his or her own individual assumptions of what has transpired in these few days. The film seems more the subject matter of a flashback. Essentially, the secrets are never revealed to the characters. They remain intact and ready to be buried. What we’ve just witnessed are the sorts of secrets or events that another screenwriter might have saved up to be mined by an adult son for their traumatic impact on his life. The film is stronger for that decision.
Though The Deep End operates with the elements of a thriller — the blackmail driving much of the story — it’s the characters who set this film apart. Swinton’s Margaret. Visnjic’s Alek. Each has his or her own story and arc, though hers is certainly the more fully developed and understandable. Both remain somewhat mysterious in their motivations. For once, here’s a film that doesn’t tell the audience everything. Certain aspects of the characters, especially Alek’s, are as invisible to us as they are to the other characters. This can be frustrating. as much as that all would be resolved if Margaret were capable of having an honest conversation with any of her family members. It’s also what makes these characters seem real, like people we might see in walking down the street or briefly overhear in a coffee shop.
As one would expect in a film with this title, many shots within the lakefront house are framed through (or partially through) aquariums. The opening scene is bathed in blue light and almost appears to be underwater, appropriate since the nightclub The Deep End gives the film its name. The circularity of certain elements — first the son and then the mother have a secret, first the son and then the mother have bruised and battered faces — make me think of ripples. Even the structure is a bit like drowning. Each time Margaret thinks she’s almost able to breathe, almost to air, almost free of these vents, something pulls her back under.
The Deep End is an extremely well done film that transcends its thriller components in an attempt to become a dual character study. Its real success is its reflection of the (usually inconsequential) deceptions and misconceptions that permeate our familal relationships, an isolating gulf that only occasionally can be spanned.

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Mass Effect. But sleep gets in the way. He's made a few films. edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers.
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