The Deep End (2001)

D: Scott McGehee and David Siegel
S: Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic

Tilda Swinton (Orlando, The Beach) plays a woman whose son has recently been involved in an accident, the consequences of which spread over her life like ripples in a pond. His homosexual dalliances at a local club bring people to the family home whose intentions are far from friendly. Ironically, when a blackmailer (Goran Visnjic) comes to call following a violent incident, the situation begins to improve. Seeing his would-be victims as human beings, he begins to empathise with them. He forms a complex relationship with Swinton in which he tries to help her while also serving the needs of his 'business partner' working behind the scenes. His sense of conflict doesn't really help Swinton much, but it does add levels of complication to her attempt to work through the situation logistically and emotionally.

Delicately directed, carefully scripted, nicely photographed, and generally well acted, The Deep End is a film which could have ended up as a TV movie if it had not been handled this well. The story is fundamentally melodramatic, dealing in situations and narrative contrivances which stretch credibility and have little more to say than the average paperback romance. The screenplay has in fact been adapted by co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who also triple as producers.

So what works? From its opening frames, the film has a strong sense of visual tension. This is reinforced by lighting and production design, creating spaces which though nominally filled with clearly defined objects also give way to sub-spaces in which micro-dramas unfold. The directors are keenly aware of how the the environment can be used to create natural framing and make use of this to let the drama unfold. The editing (by Lauren Zuckerman) is also unobtrusive, building spatial relationships between characters which give the actors the freedom to add facial and physical expressions which deepen the characterisation.

All of this is matched with Swinton's low-key performance in the lead. Her naturally pale face and tight features add to the sense of anxiety which permeates every moment of the film. Visnjic is not quite as striking a presence as Swinton, but he also underplays the part of the blackmailer in a way which maintains suspense. The film itself is not especially suspenseful, at least not on the level of story, but there is a sense of dramatic anticipation which stems from direction and performance which makes it work. Unfortunately, the payoff is inevitably little more than a series of twists and turns which brings the story to a close, and this was always the least interesting thing about the film on the whole.

In a sense this is the old question of style over content. The Deep End is not a film which will surprise or stimulate you as narrative, but it does have an air of quality about it which lingers in the mind. Fortunately there is enough of a relationship between the low-key style and the non-sensational way in which the story has been played so that the film melds style and content in a manner which makes it artful. Whether or not it makes it interesting to an audience is another question.

The Deep End is a genre story played as an art house film. It has been sold as a thriller but it is not. It has many story elements which would not appear out of place in a genre piece, but it never comes close to delivering the kind of white-knuckle tension required to make it work on those terms. The tension here is psychological and emotional, and mostly stems from what is seen rather than what is heard. This makes it cinematic, but may leave casual viewers a little starved for narrative entertainment. On the other hand the story is also pretty silly when boiled down to its essentials: difficult to believe and filled with convenient and predictable twists which have no real social or personal resonance. This will not endear it to the art house crowd, though the film has been well enough made that they may not notice just how shallow it really is.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.