Yes, The Deep End is almost as stylish as it’s been built up to be, and it does have an unreservedly brilliant central performance from Tilda Swinton (Edward II), but rather than being a truly great film, it’s instead just a very good one. It’s easily the best neo-noir since Memento, but I wouldn’t put in quite the same league as Memento or such other modern-day examples of the genre as the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing. When The Deep End is at its absolute best — a late scene with Swinton and Goran Visnjic (Committed) involving a car crash is as fine as anything from the heyday of 1940s noir — the film is just plain brilliant. At other times, The Deep End suffers from perhaps wanting to be a little too “artistic.” For example, some of the film’s persistent water imagery is exceedingly well-judged and extremely pertinent to the film on a symbolic and thematic level. (Water abounds in the film from its opening credits to its very title to where the body is “hidden” to what triggers a key plot point, while the overall impression is that the characters themselves are symbolically drowning in a situation that spins ever more out of control.) However, when we find ourselves viewing a scene upside down through a drop of water clinging to a water faucet, the effect is just cleverness for its own sake and distracts from the very real drama of the story. Swinton plays Margaret Hall, a fairly average woman whose husband is away on an aircraft carrier, leaving her in charge of the family. When the film opens we find her confronting her teenage son, Beau’s (Jonathan Tucker, The Virgin Suicides) apparent older man gay lover, Darby Reese (Josh Lucas, American Psycho), at his nightclub, The Deep End, asking the man to stay away from her son. Unfortunately, her efforts only serve to worsen the situation, resulting in a scene between Reese and Beau that ends in the accidental death of Reese (it happens after Beau leaves, so not even he knows what happens, only the viewer does). When Margaret discovers the body the next morning, she naturally assumes that Beau — bruised from his encounter with Reese — is responsible and proceeds to conceal the body under the waters of Lake Tahoe. Similarly, knowing that he didn’t do it, Beau comes to assume that his mother must have murdered his ex-lover when the body is discovered. This material could very easily have become risible — indeed it could be rewritten as black comedy — but The Deep End manages to make it all very straightfowardly believable by simply leaving it so that only the viewer ever knows the truth. Throughout the film, Margaret’s perception of her son is constantly challenged and forced to shift. She has to deal with realizing his sexuality, with the idea that he might be a murderer, and — in a particularly strong moment — she has to view a videotape of him engaged in sexual activity with Reese when she finds herself being blackmailed by Reese’s former associates. Similarly, Beau is made to rethink his views of his mother, whom he not only suspects murdered Reese, but comes to believe is probably engaged in an adulterous affair with one of her blackmailers, Alek (Visnjic). The shrewdness of the film lies in the fact that none of this is ever actually addressed. It is entirely a matter of the way in which the characters look at each other as the film progresses. Very little is directly said in the entire film. Most of what takes place is by means of suggestion. Even the strange borderline romance that occurs between Margaret and Alek, once he becomes sympathetic to her plight, is never actually mentioned, but left to the actors and the film’s clever use of dressing Margaret in the same red as Alek’s car as a point of connection when the film reaches its climactic section. The one reservation I can see about the film — overcome by the sympathetic Alek and his almost Shakespearean tragic relationship with his “partner” blackmailer — lies in its early depiction of a gay character as the a kind of cliched predator. At the same time, that’s obviously not the point of the film, and the character only stands out that way because he’s the sole gay character, apart from Beau, in the film’s early parts.
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