The Deep End

(2001) *** R
100 min. Fox Searchlight. Directors: Scott McGehee, David Siegel. Cast: Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic, Jonathan Tucker, Peter Donat, Josh Lucas.

The Deep End may not be deep, per se, but it touches surprising chords nevertheless. The second film from San Francisco writer-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (after 1994's Suture), The Deep End burrows into a family melodrama which holds mystery only for its characters, but earns squirms from its audience all the same.

Updating Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's 1940s tale "The Blank Wall," the filmmakers twist the essential melodramatic hook for maximum emotional impact and narrative trickery. In the original book, a mother protects her daughter when it appears she may be responsible for a murder, while complications arrive in the form of a blackmailer. In the film, mother Tilda Swinton does the legwork for her gay, teenage son, who appears to have murdered his older lover.

Matters are plenty convoluted by the arrival of blackmailer Goran Visnjic, who is pulled into the web of confusion. The central characters spend the film on very unsure footing, exacerbated by mistakes and misunderstandings. If the facts are obscured, the emotions are potently real. The son's unfortunate shame in the shadow of an oft-absent father, the mother's fiercely unconditional love, and the blackmailer's frustrating but irrepressible conscience create a modern tragedy of secrets and shifting morals.

McGehee and Siegel underscore all this with water imagery to remind us of the claustrophobic, sinking feeling the characters endure. While the film is handsomely shot, the meat remains the quiet desperation and inner strength behind the performances. Swinton gives a performance that, in both word and deed, demands Oscar take notice, while the rest of the cast—Visnjic, Jonathan Tucker as the son, and Peter Donat as Swinton's blissfully ignorant father-in-law— provides fine, subtle support.

McGehee and Siegel maintain just the pace to sell the often-unlikely story, always pressing to the next emotional hurdle for Swinton, whose slow collapse pays off handsomely. The Deep End provides a satisfying alternative to predictable Hollywood excess.

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