With her husband perpetually away at work, a mother raises her children virtually alone. Her teenage son is testing the waters of the adult world, and early one morning she wakes to find the dead body of his gay lover on the beach of their rural lakeside home. What would you do? What is rational and what do you do to protect your child? How far do you go and when do you stop? Written by
Sujit R. Varma
Taking care of others often involves self-sacrifice, and mothers of most feather will put themselves in harm's way to shield their young. In the THE DEEP END, a modern retelling of Max Ophuls' 1946 thriller THE RECKLESS MOMENT, Margaret Hall is a mother of three willing to do whatever it takes to keep her family safe from the irrational forces that follow her teenage son home one night from a nightclub of ill repute. But mom, played with stoic intensity by Tilda Swinton, quickly learns that heroism doesn't fit on a calendar already packed with soccer practices, trumpet lessons and visits to the grocery store.
Superficially the story concerns a vicious run of bad luck. Noirish events are set in motion when Margaret tries to cover up the accidental death of her son's unsavory friend (Josh Lucas as a spookily playful predator). The next day a man with a dice tattoo on his neck knocks on her door and demands $50,000 to suppress a videotape linking her son to the death, which police have ruled a homicide. The dramatic heart of the film concerns Margaret's dealings with the blackmailer, cagily played by Goran Visnjic, ER's Slavic heartthrob in a less soapy but perversely related role. Mr. Visnjic is credible though never quite menacing as a predator in awe of, and ultimately vulnerable to, his tender prey.
Taken at this level THE DEEP END, luminously shot in the gambling resort of Lake Tahoe, is an eerie joy ride that leans heavily on coincidence to tangle then unknot its plot. But the presence of Tilda Swinton indicates that more is going on here than melodrama. Ms. Swinton is a brilliant post-feminist actress whose work sheds light on paradoxes of femininity and female power. Her earlier films include ORLANDO, in which she explored androgyny and immortality, and FEMALE PERVERSIONS, a Freudian critique of the feminist myth of "having it all." In THE DEEP END, Ms. Swinton's nuanced performance comments on motherhood as a source of both power and vulnerability. A woman may be willing to do anything for her son, as Margaret Hall clearly is, yet still be constrained by a "glass ceiling" of caregiving attachments that prevent her from achieving man-style success. In cinema, the latter typically means blowing the villains' brains out, something Margaret Hall might consider doing if she weren't so busy taking care of her kids and aging father-in-law.
Throughout the film Margaret tries but is unable to reach her husband, a Navy officer on an aircraft carrier somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. His unavailability is more than an inconvenience. Attempting to negotiate with the blackmailers, Margaret finds herself hamstrung when the bank refuses a critical withdrawal without her husband's say-so. Mr. Hall's conspicuous absence and his infirm father's burdensome presence amplify Margaret's predicament, showing how hollow the conventions of marriage and machismo can be. The fact that both men are soldiers, society's designated heroes, is no accident. They defend motherhood in the abstract while remaining blind to a real mother's needs.
Margaret Hall is Ms. Swinton's most reluctant feminist character to date, a woman whose maternal ferocity the family setting renders moot and who must ultimately rely on the kindness of strangers. Her performance transforms THE DEEP END from a good summer thriller to a dramatic critique of the politics of caregiving.
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