The Deep End

Almost the entirety of The Deep End focuses precisely and a little obsessively on one event: the concealment of a corpse, and the aftermath. It’s all “What a tangled web we weave.” What sets the movie apart is the dynamic between the lead character, Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton), and her son Beau (Jonathan Tucker), a musician in his late teens. Beau is gay, and has been hanging around the sort of predatory older men that make a mother nervous; you feel Margaret would be okay with his sexuality if he practiced it more prudently. As the movie begins, communication between the two is already at a standstill: he resents her questions, and she, not wanting to push the boy away, tries hard not to ask them.

All of this is fertile ground for either a thriller or a drama; The Deep End, written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, attempts to be both. One of Beau’s mates, a sleazy loverboy (Josh Lucas), turns up dead on the shore one morning. Margaret, assuming that Beau killed his lover during an argument, takes the body far away and anchors it down in shallow water (probably about 10 feet). The film slows down so that we process every step, every awkward development. For long stretches there’s no sound except the soothing waves lapping the shore. Each lap seems to drive the reality of the situation home a little deeper.

The Deep End is a tasteful and accomplished work, respectful of details and ornamented with a heroic performance by Tilda Swinton, whose Margaret has to get on with mundane daily life despite this incident and often seems close to cracking. You almost want to hear no more about the corpse — you want the movie to become about how Margaret and Beau will now interact, circling each other warily to see what the other knows, and we do get a bit of that. But their failure to communicate serves only to explain why certain things aren’t said at certain points, and there are a few too many scenes that bring interruptions at the worst time.

The corpse is recovered, and Margaret must now deal with a new wrinkle: a mysterious man, Alek (Goran Visnjic), seems to know a lot about the relationship between Beau and the dead man, and he wants an impressive sum of money in exchange for staying quiet. Alek is not what he seems, though, and in the person of ER hunk Visnjic he seems to come off as a heavy only as a formality; the women in the audience may hope for, and probably expect, a change of heart.

Margaret sets about scraping the money together, and we have to watch her do that for a few scenes. Other things happen, further complicating Margaret’s agenda — the movie could be called Bad Timing. The plot — based as it is on a novel (Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall) over 50 years old — begins to creak. The writers-directors get as much mileage as they can out of the curving roads and placid waters of Lake Tahoe, around which the action is set. Swinton gives us a harried, unglamorous woman until a key scene near the end, when Margaret finally puts on some makeup — possibly to appear more attractive to Alek — and nearly pops out at us (she’s even wearing a red overcoat).

The denouement is perhaps best not discussed, and not only to avoid spoilers. A second heavy (Raymond Barry), one of those looming foulmouths you expect to meet in movies less classy than this, enters the picture and brings a stale waft of B-movie air with him; for a while, the movie plays “Good Cop/Bad Cop” (it’s never clear whether the men are corrupt detectives or not). The climax slides into cheese — tactfully directed cheese is still cheese. The Deep End is finely crafted but more than a little overrated, perhaps understandable at the end of the typical dumb movie summer. Critics may be eager for any movie that gestures even slightly towards autumn’s promise of adulthood. See it for Tilda Swinton, and for the quietly accusatory sound of the waves flirting with the shore and retreating.

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