The Living End 

Unburdened by homages, The Deep End stands on its own

From the directors of Suture comes a new film noir that's more deep than dead. After nearly a decade's absence from the big screen, Suture auteurs Scott McGehee and David Siegel finally deliver a second feature with The Deep End, an exciting, sharply realized melodramatic film noir, based on Elizabeth Sanxay Holding's novel The Blank Wall, which was also the source for the 1949 Max Ophuls classic The Reckless Moment, with James Mason and Joan Bennett. While The Deep End is different enough not to seem an actual remake of The Reckless Moment, it still takes a lot of daring to approach source material that has already been adapted by one of the great directors.

Tilda Swinton (Orlando, Edward II) plays Margaret Hall, a Lake Tahoe-area housewife who is trying to break up the relationship between Beau (Jonathan Tucker), her teenage son, and Darby Reese (Josh Lucas), an unsavory older man. Late one night, Margaret hears suspicious sounds outside the house; and then Beau storms inside, refusing to speak to her. When Margaret finds Darby's dead body near their house, she quite reasonably assumes that Beau has murdered him in a quarrel -- a quarrel that may well be the result of her meddling in their affairs.

What we know and Margaret doesn't is that Beau is innocent -- of murder, at least. Yes, he quarreled with Darby, but it was only after he stomped away that the drunken, dazed Darby fell to his death. Acting perhaps eighty percent from maternal instinct and twenty percent from guilt, Margaret sets about disposing of the body and concealing the "crime," all to protect her beloved son from the consequences of something he hasn't done.

She thinks she's controlled the situation, until a mysterious young man named Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic) turns up demanding $50,000. Spera doesn't have any proof of Beau's guilt -- how could he? -- but he does have a long, quite explicit video of Beau engaged in sex with Darby, a video that would almost certainly make Beau a suspect and would at the very least cause a scandal. Margaret's husband is a naval officer, stationed on a ship that's out on classified maneuvers; she can't reach him for help, and, even if she could, she knows he is the macho kind of guy who is not going to be delighted about his son's sexual orientation. Somehow, Margaret must come up with the money in 24 hours, while going about her already frenetic life as a mother to Beau and two younger children and as homemaker for them and her aging father-in-law (Peter Donat), who lives with them. Plus with the police nosing around the neighborhood, she cannot even let slip that anything is vaguely amiss.

She quickly discovers that, without her husband's signature, there is no way for her to get that kind of money, even if she had more time. (This is one of the few elements that feels like a plot flaw, given the updating. She's a middle-class housewife with an expensive home. Are we to believe that she has no credit cards in her own name? There are 25-year-olds in America these days who have $50,000 cash-advance credit lines. It might have helped if the blackmailer's demand had been for ten times as much.)

As she keeps putting Spera off and they have more and more meetings, a strange thing happens. He begins to see into her life, into her point of view. A continual loser and doomed lowlife, he recognizes in her mundane routine the sort of existence he will never have. We never know what dreams and schemes have brought Spera to his current desperate life, but it's clear to him that he's too far gone down some dark, dangerous alleyway to ever make his way back to Main Street.

But he's not going to take others down with him. He drops whatever rationalizations he may have come up with for his involvement in the extortion; as villains almost never do, he acknowledges to himself that he is the bad guy. Letting Margaret off the hook will be his small attempt at redemption. Unfortunately, he has a partner, a vicious bastard named Nagle (Raymond J. Barry), who is not nearly so "sentimental."

One of the difficult tasks that McGehee and Siegel pull off smoothly is the shift of focus from Margaret to Spera. We are so strongly tied to her point of view for the first third of the film that it should be disorienting when the story starts cutting back and forth between the two characters, but it isn't. In part, this is thanks to the two central performances; Margaret and Spera's transition from bitter adversaries to something more positive is made entirely convincing.

Swinton is almost the definition of a "handsome" woman (which would explain her casting as Virginia Woolf's transsexual Orlando): She is by turns strikingly beautiful and almost invisibly ordinary-looking. She slips into the accent and manner of an American housewife with nary a hitch. One might think that her reaction at watching a video of her son having gay sex would be the crucial moment in her performance, but it's really just a prelude to when she next speaks to him (discussing some trivial household matter) and must see him suddenly through entirely new eyes.

Fans of the outrageously bold Suture may be disappointed at the essentially conservative style of The Deep End. (Those who considered Suture's "trick" story to be nothing but an attention-getting gimmick will doubtless be relieved.) But Suture, while a wonderfully entertaining and provocative film, was almost an end more dead than deep.

With this new film, McGehee and Siegel have made an engrossing, often enlightening character study -- which most great noir films are, under the surface. And they've done something else of value: They've shown that it's possible, in the 21st century, to make a film noir that isn't (in the usual sense) "neo-noir." That is, there is no whiff of "retro" about the project, no homages or self-conscious harkening back to a beloved set of conventions and stylistic touches. In that, they have been more faithful to the spirit of the original noir directors: They've simply approached the story on its own terms, letting that determine the style.


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