The Deep End (2001)

by Susan Brown


Mother Overboard

The Deep End might be accurately described as The Tilda Swinton Show, as her portrayal of the desperate, self-sacrificing mother Margaret Hall is the center of the film. She appears in practically every scene, often in close-up, and accordingly, the film fails or succeeds in large part as a result of her performance. Unfortunately, hers is a character with little modulation, despite the many twists and turns of plot in this would-be Hitchcockian thriller. From the film’s first scene, where Margaret confronts Darby Reese (Josh Lucas), the sleazy bar owner she believes is a bad influence on her 17-year-old son, she displays an unwaveringly fierce intensity. To some perhaps, this determination to rescue her son may seem heroic. To me, it is merely tedious.

Sure, she has reason to be concerned. After all, she suspects her son Beau (Jonathan Tucker) of “having feelings” for Darby, who isn’t exactly the kind of guy to bring home to mother. Of course, it doesn’t take a mother’s intuition to see that he is Bad News: from his soul patch to his flashy Corvette, Darby is obviously coded as a villain—particularly when juxtaposed against her bland, squeaky-clean son who thinks Margaret has no clue about his “little secret.” As Darby says to Beau, “She’s a mother, not a moron.”

cover art

The Deep End

Director: Scott McGehee, David Siegel III
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic, Jonathan Tucker

(Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Maybe not, but her judgment throughout the film is both frustrating and inexplicable. After discovering Darby’s body beside the dock in her idyllic Lake Tahoe home, she snaps immediately into action. (How do ordinary people in the movies always seem to know how to dispose of the dead?) Before we know it, Margaret is prying a torn piece of her son’s shirt from Darby’s clenched hand, then tying his body to an anchor and submerging it in the water. Margaret has no way of knowing if Beau was involved in Darby’s death, but it hardly matters. She is, after all, Super Mom, a mass of dogged impulse when it comes to protecting her children. All the while, she still manages to pick up the neighborhood kids from ballet class, fold the laundry, tend to her ailing father-in-law, and make meals for her three precocious kids.

Indeed, it seems Margaret is fixated on preserving her safe, privileged domestic existence. When a blackmailer (Goran Visnijic) demands $50,000 in 24 hours, in exchange for a videotape of Darby and Beau in a compromising position, there’s nothing she won’t do to make sure the tape (inappropriately graphic, given the film’s coy treatment of the subject matter later on) is not exposed. She comes off as a bit too invested in rescuing her nearly adult son. What she is rescuing him from is unclear, however. Surely, filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel are not implying that Beau’s music scholarship to Wesleyan is worth more than a human life, no matter how loathsome that human might have been. And so we are left to assume that Margaret’s motive in the cover-up is shame over her son’s homosexuality. Unfortunately, her fear (and even disgust) rings rather false in a movie made in the 21st century.

Ironically, as devoted as Margaret is to her son, she is frustratingly uncommunicative with him, even when such conversations could save his life. In part, her steely silence is a function of the plot, as one discussion between mother and son could potentially clear up all confusion and effectively end the movie. But it strains the bounds of logic to imagine that she would never even bring up her suspicions of his involvement in Darby’s death, his homosexuality, or her need for money (which, implausibly, she cannot access without her husband’s signature). Hell, she even has a hard time asking him for a ride when her car won’t start in the film’s climax. You may ask, where is Beau’s father in all of this mess? Unreachable on a boat in the Navy. Margaret struggles half-heartedly to contact him by phone and by e-mail—first for support, and then for money. But she gives up, unable to tell her husband the truth. As she puts it to the blackmailer, “He won’t understand his son being . . .”

And so when the husband finally calls home in The Deep End‘s open-ended finale, after Margaret has ostensibly restored order to her little family, what is the film’s message? Were the cover-up and blackmail drama merely her punishment for being self-sufficient? Or would the film have us believe that disaster is simply inevitable when a woman is left alone and in charge? It appears that such questions ultimately are unimportant in Siegel and McGeehee’s incompetent script, based on a 1947 novel serialized in The Ladies Home Journal, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall. Throughout the film, as one unlikely situation after another surfaced, I began to focus instead on other matters: would Peter Nashel’s repetitive score ever come to an end? Would the audience be able to stifle its laughter when the thriller evolved into a veiled love story? And why did the filmmakers think a dated melodrama from 1947 would make a successful adaptation today?

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