Deep End’s strength lies in quiet

This week Images brings The Deep End to Williamstown, starring Tilda Swinton as Margaret Hall, a mother apprehensive about her teenage son’s romantic relationship with an aggressive young nightclub owner named Darby Reese (Josh Lucas). Her son Beau (Jonathon Tucker) is reticent in the face of his mother’s attempts to force him into admitting the nature of his relationship with Darby. When early one morning she discovers the body of her son’s lover impaled on an anchor behind their Lake Tahoe home, she cannot help but understand it to be her son’s crime.

The subsequent action she takes, disposing of the body by submerging it in the lake, is carried out with an unsettling and instinctual quickness. This reaction is a symbol of her unfailing maternal love, the depths she will go to protect her family from being torn apart. However, her ill-conceived disposal of the body in the lake also could function as a metaphor for the subterranean tensions surrounding Beau’s homosexuality.

As the film’s shift into Hitchcock-inflected suspense mode, it temporarily leaves behind the domestic apprehension relating to Beau’s sexuality. Returning home from hiding the body, Margaret reassumes her role as “Mom.” However, the body is soon discovered by fishermen, and by reading Beau’s shocked reaction to the news, Margaret understands that she has accidentally cleaned up a crime her son did not commit. In the midst of all this domestic confusion Alek, a young soft-spoken hood played by ER’s Goran Visnjic, shows up on her doorstep with a blackmail scheme, cashing in on his videotaped evidence of Beau and Darby’s incriminating affair.That the affair is never discussed or labeled only underscores Margaret’s apprehension of the suburban shame and stigma toward homosexuality. For the most part they remain unmentioned undercurrents, with only occasional manifestations. As the film is increasingly taken over by the second-rate blackmail plot, Margaret’s domestic unease is left below the surface — frustratingly so, for it stands as the most interesting aspect of the film: indisputably real and serious but difficult to articulate.

Increasingly, it becomes Margaret’s own sexuality that is most in question. For the early part of the film she plays the role of the strict, attentive, and thoroughly sexless mom. The introduction of Alek, a rugged but good-looking young man who stands in contrast to her mundane and isolating home life, teases us with the possibility of Margaret perhaps getting pulled into a questionable sexual relationship herself.

Thematically and visually The Deep End echoes another film concerned with the silent and tense isolation of middle-class families, The Ice Storm, with the visual design and lead performances of the former undoubtedly owing a debt to the latter. With an emphasis on sickly blues and anemic oranges and golds, Margaret’s world is one observed through a cataract, glaucous and drained. At times the characters are so pale they appear translucent.

The performances are equally vague and emotionally distant. The essential unreadablity of Margaret’s expression in many scenes is both the strength and weakness of her performance; at times it seems too calculated, too consistent with the film’s overall visual design. Beau’s passivity seems more genuine, more “right” for a doleful and discouraged teenager. The film’s final scene, a virtually silent moment shared by Beau and Margaret is powerful because of the emotion exposed when the inhibitions and domestic stoicism has drained away.

The instinct to use aquatic adjectives in describing The Deep End is tempting, gimmicky, and ultimately, appropriate. The film’s palette of light and dark blues, the frequent use of dissolves, and the “fish-in-a-tank” motif, convey a ubiquitous quiet sadness and a comforting placidity.

The resolution of The Deep End suggests it is clear who the “bad guys” are – anyone who interferes with the quotidian normalcy of an average middle-class family. What makes The Deep End so worthwhile is that that understanding ultimately seems to be a red herring. In the end the Halls are still locked in communicative paralysis. Margaret is no less isolated in any real way. The only way we may imagine that isolation breaking down is for her family to truly talk to her.

The film presents wonderfully, and with heartbreaking accuracy, how family problems can ripple out into the real world in devastating ways. The bad guys pay the price, in The Deep End, but only for the Halls domestic troubles. The Deep End maps a murder-suspense plot onto the surface of a typical family crisis, revealing the paramount importance of what that surface can reveal, or obscure, of the volume beneath.