The dominant color—or rather, the dominant, pervasive idea—in David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s The Deep End is blue. From the ominous presence of Lake Tahoe to the oppressively huge Nevadan sky, from characters’ clothing and cars to the walls that seem to close in on them, every scene includes some shade of blue.
While it surely conjures up all kinds of longstanding cultural and emotional associations, this color motif is also a rather clever way to underline The Deep End‘s generic roots and disjointed timing: it is most definitely a throwback film noir, but is also so acutely contemporary in its anxieties, that it’s impossible to label as only that. Like many classic noirs, the movie follows a protagonist who takes a terribly wrong turn from which she never recovers, a turn that then takes the narrative into such peculiar and “unrealistic” directions that you can’t help but be hyper-aware that you’re watching a movie.
This despite the fact that The Deep End expends some energy inviting you to believe that Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton) is an “ordinary” person, or at least an “ordinary” mother, who will do whatever it takes to protect her family. Her fierce intensity and unshakable resolve are movie conventions, the kind of attitudes that you examine closely in movies that put characters in extraordinary situations—finding their ways in and out of these situations makes them extraordinary as well. First clue: Margaret lives in an incredibly expensive, stunningly designed house on Lake Tahoe, caring for her three kids and her father-in-law (Peter Donat), while her Navy officer husband is away at sea. No “ordinary” person lives in that house or lives that isolated, wearying life. It costs her. When Margaret wants a cigarette, she sneaks off to a room in a corner of that big house, by herself, and smokes it by the window, waving the smoke outside with her thin hand, like she’s a teenager breaking the rules. This detail lays out her sense of alienation in her own home.
But if her self-awareness is limited at the start of The Deep End, it soon comes roaring to the surface, in a series of events that rupture her household and so, her sense of secure identity. And in this way, she’s like a lot of obviously contrived movie characters, an element among many elements, encouraging you to think and rethink your own position, but not really making her own concrete. You may sympathize with and even marvel at her, but you never quite identify with her, at least not in the standard understanding of the term. What happens around and to and because of her is all too weird to be absorbed as “ordinary” or even very possible, experience. Instead, you watch as your jaw drops wider and wider, your brain wheels spin faster and faster. And you keep wondering, when will this woman do the right thing? Until you begin wondering, can she?
As it happens, she can’t. And that’s because Margaret is Walter Neff—Fred MacMurray’s hopelessly in-over-his-head insurance guy from Double Indemnity—reimagined as someone’s mother. The first time you see her, she’s already in trouble, and the film hasn’t even started, really. She’s leaving the bright sunshine behind and descending, quite literally, into a Reno nightclub called The Deep End, and everything around her—the walls, the fish tanks, the bottles behind the bar—shimmers blue. Menacing, pulsing blue. (And it’s probably just coincidence that the last movie made by Derek Jarman, Swinton’s longtime director, was Blue.) Looking lost and pale against this watery background, Margaret seeks out the club owner, one Darby Reese (Josh Lucas), whom, she has recently learned, is sleeping with her adolescent son Beau (Jonathan Tucker). She tells him to leave her Beau alone. Darby laughs at her.
As you soon learn, it took something of a sledgehammer cue for Margaret to realize that her son has developed into a sexual being: on the way from the club one night, he was in a nasty car wreck, a scene shown only in fragmented flashback, that focuses on Margaret’s speedy fear and then relief, when she finds Beau alive in the ambulance. And then she gets mad. Margaret’s crazy “solution”—to confront the “bad guy,” restrict Beau’s activities, and keep the entire matter secret from her husband (who, she says, “wouldn’t understand”), and all on her own—tells you a great deal about her. She’s a hardcore mom, but she’s also optionless (at least in her own mind), and she hasn’t thought through the possible consequences. And these are, no surprise, a major bitch.
The trouble that begins in that first scene in the club almost immediately expands to overwhelm Margaret’s life; much of it takes place in broad daylight, with that glistening lake in the background. Margaret wakes the morning after her meeting with Darby to find his body in the lake. Assuming that she must protect Beau (whom she thinks is the killer, without even asking him a simple question at any point), Margaret hides the body in the lake. It gets worse: when she learns that she’s dumped him with his car keys in his pocket, she goes back to the lake, strips to her white underwear and dives in, picking through his pockets while his misshapen, bluish face looms at her in the water. She returns home to make sure the kids get off to whatever extracurricular activities they have scheduled. She does everything she’s supposed to do. And then some.
On top of all this, which takes some time and a clear emotional toll, Margaret is approached by a blackmailer, Alek (Goran Visnjic). Now, a little late, she learns that Darby was hooked up with gangsters, and he owed money, and now they want the money from her, also assuming that Beau is the killer (in gangster debt-math, you assume your victim’s obligations). Alek, who ends up being a fairly sympathetic guy himself, brings some incentive: a graphic sex tape starring Darby and Beau. This scene, as Margaret watches the tape, might be the most chilling in the film. The camera cuts from the grainy video to Margaret’s ghastly pale face, and you can only guess what she’s thinking. There’s nothing here that she can repair or make better, and it has nothing to do with the body or the blackmail. Rather, it’s about her son growing up. Beau is an adult, he likes sex, and she’s suddenly been left behind.
And… she can’t reach her husband.
This is perhaps the creepiest and most abstract problem in the film—the absent-present husband. The fact that she cannot bring herself to tell him about Beau’s sexuality (the fact that he has sex, even more importantly than with whom) is a metaphor for her inability to be intimate or trusting with him in any way. He “won’t understand.” That doesn’t mean that Margaret does. But she wants to, or thinks she does. And that’s what saves her, sort of.
Based on Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s novel The Blank Wall, already the basis of a 1949 film noir, Reckless Moment, directed by Max Ophuls and starring Joan Bennett, The Deep End is the second feature by Siegel and McGehee, whose Suture (1993), offered a witty deconstruction of the very idea of stable identity. The Deep End works a similar set of problems, with less intellectual game-iness, and more attention to the emotional pain and pleasure that come with such deconstruction. At the same time, it sticks to its noiry guns, fully appreciating and also tweaking the genre’s improbable plot turns and gorgeous visuals.
The complicated twists involve Margaret’s efforts to raise an impossible amount of money (impossible, even though she does live in that swank house), her changing priorities, and her increasingly passionate relationship with Alek. They develop a taut and provocative rhythm in their non-romance, evolving initially from Margaret’s realization that her son has sexual desires and experiences, both like and unlike her own. Her self-conception mutates radically by the end of the film: she is a faster, braver, and more brutal thinker than she had imagined.