When Margaret Hall discovers the dead body of her son's gay lover Darby, she immediately assumes her son, Beau, was the killer and tries to protect him by disposing of the corpse in the lake. A man named Spera then arrives at Margaret's home and attempts to blackmail her with video footage of Beau and Darby making love. Margaret tries and fails to raise the money, and the sympathetic Spera says he will try to persuade his partner Nagle to accept a delayed payment. Nagle, however, is determined to push things through to their bitter conclusion. Based on the novel The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, which had previously been adapted for the screen by Max Ophuls under the title The Reckless Moment (1949).
Every parent wants to protect their child; it's in their blood. When a crisis occurs, an alarm bell sounds deep within the souls of mothers and fathers, and they spring into action, fueled by adrenaline, fear, overwhelming concern, and a visceral, abiding love that inspires amazing feats of selflessness and, at times, irrational, risky behavior. 'The Deep End,' a taut, elegant thriller from the writer-director-producer team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel, examines such impulsive, desperate acts, all performed for the sake of a child in distress. The story of a mother who hopes to shield her troubled son from an impending murder investigation that might label him a suspect is both relatable and preposterous; moments of self-recognition are often instantly supplanted by head-shakes of disbelief. Yet the assured direction and finely crafted performances lend the over-the-top antics a sobering gravity that helps the film rise above its improbable narrative.
That narrative focuses on Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton), an attractive mother of three who lives a seemingly idyllic life on the shores of Lake Tahoe. Though the absence of her husband, a naval airman on deployment, puts more responsibility squarely on her shoulders, Margaret weathers the added stress well, until she suspects her oldest son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker), is sexually involved with the sleazy Darby Reese (Josh Lucas), who owns an urban gay club called The Deep End. Darby's obsession with Beau leads him to the boy's home, and after a heated confrontation in the family boathouse, an inebriated Darby ends up dead. Quite by accident, Margaret discovers the body the next morning and immediately assumes Beau killed his "friend" and will be pursued by the police. Without any thought or investigation, she decides to dispose of the body, dumping it in the deep end of the lake, and thus severing any connection between Darby and her son.
All goes swimmingly until a mysterious man, Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic), turns up at her home with a videocassette showing Beau and Darby engaging in sexual acts. Apparently Darby owed Alek's boss, mobster Carlie Nagel (Raymond Barry), some money, and he hopes Margaret will settle the $50,000 debt, or else he'll turn the incriminating tape over to the police. Racing against time, Margaret tries to come up with the money, but during the course of her desperate pursuit, Alek becomes sympathetic to her plight, changing the dynamics of their relationship and the rules of Carlie's game.
'The Deep End' is based on 'The Blank Wall,' a post-World War II novel by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, which was previously filmed in 1949 by German director Max Ophuls as 'The Reckless Moment,' starring Joan Bennett as the frantic mother and James Mason as the handsome blackmailer. (The original storyline focuses on a teenage girl's involvement with an older man - which in that day and age was scandalous enough - but changing the gender of the child and adding a homosexual angle puts a vital contemporary spin on the tale and adds an extra sense of urgency to the actions of the mother, who also wants to keep her son's subversive lifestyle a secret.) In style and tone, as well as plot mechanics, 'The Deep End' methodically mirrors its predecessor as it strives to pay homage to both film noir and the glossy domestic melodramas of director Douglas Sirk, such as 'All That Heaven Allows' and 'Written on the Wind.' When viewed in that context, 'The Deep End' more fully resonates (Margaret often resembles the self-sacrificing Mildred Pierce, immortalized by Joan Crawford, who would go to any lengths to keep her ungrateful daughter from escaping the retribution she so dearly deserved), but if taken at face value, the film, like all of its characters, seems to go off the proverbial deep end on a couple of notable occasions, straining credulity and stretching the already far-out boundaries of parental motivation.
Mother-love on steroids might best describe Margaret's actions, and her rash behavior, which snowballs throughout the course of the movie, is somehow more acceptable within the realm of 1940s noir and melodrama than it is in contemporary cinema, where realism - at least with regard to human stories - plays such a critical role. While watching 'The Deep End,' it's impossible not to think of a few easy ways Margaret could solve her predicament and walk away unscathed, and yet she's continually drawn deeper into a web of intrigue, complicated by her growing attachment to her blackmailer. Yes, the plot is entertaining, but when elements don't ring true, we lose our connection to the characters and become less invested in the story.
McGehee and Siegel mount tension well, allowing a quiet sense of unease to infect the tranquil surroundings. They also focus as much as possible on intimate interactions, showcasing the excellent performances that distinguish the film. Swinton leads the charge, filing an intense yet measured portrayal of a woman who's thrust into an unthinkable situation and must hide her stress and fear from those she loves. With her pale complexion and piercing eyes, Swinton becomes an imposing figure as the movie progresses, a fierce tigress who protects and fights for her young with uncommon vigor and valor. Visnjic, best known for his portrayal of hunky Dr. Luka Kovac on the TV series 'ER,' complements her well, and the two create a symbiotic chemistry that transcends the plot's clunkier aspects.
Just like the characters that populate it and the actions that define it, 'The Deep End' is a frustrating film. On the one hand, it's a well produced, well acted, and often engrossing drama, but on the other, it's an overdone, slightly stylized thriller. It's a movie from another era brought into our current milieu without enough alteration to make it relevant, and yet its relatable themes are timeless. And though, as a whole, it ultimately disappoints, when dissected, various pieces are stunning. Thankfully, the film's one sustainable thread is the uniformly superior work of Swinton, and almost single-handedly her performance keeps 'The Deep End' from drowning.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Deep End' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A strong 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Fox highlights the film's lush palette, yet maintains an appropriate grittiness that suits the story's darker aspects. Light grain adds welcome texture to the tale without impinging on the image's excellent levels of contrast and clarity. (The directors employ plenty of reflections throughout the movie, and all of them are razor sharp.) No nicks or scratches dot the pristine source material, which sports superior color balance and saturation. Reds are used sparingly, but when they appear - a flashy sports car and Swinton's stylish coat - they make a statement, while the blues and greens of the land and waterscapes blend more seamlessly into the film's fabric. Solid black levels, consistent fleshtones, and well-defined close-ups also punch up the picture. Background elements are easy to discern, shadow delineation is quite good, and no crush, noise, or other digital issues rear their ugly heads. Fittingly, depth distinguishes 'The Deep End,' and this solid effort helps immerse us in the drama on screen.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track maximizes the impact of the nuances that pervade the film's soundscape. Atmospherics, such as chirping birds and street traffic, possess a subtle surround presence, and accents, like the hum of a power boat's motor and buzz of a doorbell, are crisp and distinct. Fine fidelity and tonal depth help Peter Nashel's music score fill the room, and a wide dynamic scale handles all of the track's highs and lows with ease. There's not much bass to speak of, so the subwoofer remains ineffective, and no distortion or surface noise disrupts the smoothness of the presentation. Best of all, the dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, even when delivered in hushed tones or when multiple actors speak simultaneously. The unobtrusive audio keeps us focused on the tense story, but the delicate enhancements it offers aid the movie immeasurably.
A nice supplemental package adds context and perspective to this intriguing emotional thriller.
Audio Commentary - Collaborators Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who wrote, produced, and directed 'The Deep End,' sit down for a jovial, mildly informative commentary that starts strong, but loses steam toward the end. Among other things, the pair talks about the alterations they made to the story during the adaptation process, how they rearranged the opening sequence, the casting of Tilda Swinton and her meticulous attention to detail, the complexities of shooting scenes in the water, and how their creative partnership has worked for them despite the high failure rate of such pressurized professional unions. Though not terribly enlightening, this chat does offer up some interesting nuggets of information - most of which concern the nuts and bolts of production - that enhance one's appreciation of the film.
Featurette: "The Anatomy of a Scene" (SD, 24 minutes) - Through storyboards, script shots, production stills, alternate takes, and interviews with cast and crew, this Sundance Channel featurette analyzes one of the movie's critical confrontations between Swinton and Visnjic from a variety of perspectives. Lighting, camera angles, music, and setting are all examined, as well as the emotional impact of editing and the motivation of the actors. While some might find the in-depth nature of this piece tedious, others will be fascinated by the insight into the production process and collaborative relationship of the creative team.
Making-Of Featurette (SD, 3 minutes) - This isn't a making-of featurette at all, but rather a brief look at the film's premise as explained primarily by Swinton, who talks about the trials and tribulations her character must endure.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - The thriller aspects of the plot are heightened in this taut preview.
TV Spot (SD, 30 seconds) - This brief television ad completes the extras package.
A finely constructed and executed thriller that's ultimately let down by its implausible plot, 'The Deep End' features top-notch performances from a stellar cast led by Tilda Swinton, who plays a mother brought to the brink of emotional, physical, and financial ruin when she assumes her son may be implicated in a murder. Fox's Blu-ray is distinguished by excellent video, solid audio, and a decent smattering of supplemental material that gets under the film's skin. Though the tough-to-swallow story never quite lives up to its potential, the stylish presentation of this taut family drama raises 'The Deep End' above the shallow norm and makes it definitely worth a look.