by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2001, 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
What follows is my original review of The Deep End from the September 2001 issue of Zenger's Newsmagazine and my comments on seeing it again recently.
The Deep End Evokes and Extends Classic Noir
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
How do you make a convincing film noir these days that actually stands a chance of comparison to the great 1940’s classics? How do you find a story with just the right amount of moral ambiguity while still retaining sympathy for at least some of the characters? How do you avoid falling into the trap of being so cynical that you leave the audience absolutely no one with whom do you identify? And how do you achieve the almost tactile look of old-time noir, with those half-shadowed scenes and vivid black-and-white chiaroscuro effects, in an era in which moviegoers simply take it for granted that films are in color?
Scott McGehee and David Siegel, writers, producers and directors of the new film The Deep End, seem to have figured it out. First, they took a story from the classic noir era: Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s 1947 novel The Blank Wall, already filmed (in 1949) as The Reckless Moment, with Max Ophuls directing and Joan Bennett and James Mason in the roles now played by Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic. Second, they moved the story from a relatively dull California bedroom community called Balboa to the awesome vistas of Lake Tahoe, creating a deeply ironic contrast between the sordid elements of their plot and the natural beauty of the settings — and also tapping the California/Nevada state border as a symbol of the line between good and evil, much the way the U.S./Mexico border served in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.
Third, they hired an awesome cinematographer, Giles Nuttgens, who instead of the overall dirty-brown tones of most modern attempts at noir worked hard to duplicate the shadowy black-and-white look of original noir, despite the handicap of color. Often the actors’ faces are in shadow, even in daylight (the darkness that falls over the face of someone when you take their photo with the light behind them — which drives ordinary snapshooters nuts — is a frequent effect in this film), and water becomes a powerful symbol throughout the film. “The Deep End” literally is the name of a bar in which Swinton’s young son (Jonathan Tucker) has become corrupted by an unscrupulous older man, but it’s also both a visual and moral symbol for the murkiness of people’s motivations and the depths into which simple, innocent actions can plunge an ordinary soul who flirts, however passingly, with human evil.
Swinton plays Margaret Hall, wife of an officer aboard the U.S.S. Constellation, who is living in affluent but not really rich circumstances with her children Beau (Tucker), Paige (Tamara Hope) and Dylan (Jordan Dorrance) in a home on the California side of Lake Tahoe, in an area so rugged that owning an SUV as their primary car actually makes sense. The opening shot finds her standing outside a corrugated-steel exterior in Reno, ringing a doorbell and finally gaining reluctantly granted admission into a Gay bar called The Deep End. (“Take the plunge,” their matchbooks urge.) A young, shirtless man calls back into the bar, “Somebody’s mother is here” — and Margaret eventually gets to see the man she’s there to confront: Darby Reese (Josh Lucas), her 17-year-old son’s 30-year-old boyfriend.
In Holding’s novel and Ophuls’ film, it was a straight daughter, not a Gay son, who fell in love with the bad guy and precipitated the plot. McGehee and Siegel knew better; not only would a straight relationship not carry the emotional wallop with today’s audience that a Gay one does, it sets up a bitter, intense scene when, after Darby has died under mysterious circumstances and Margaret is worried her son will be blamed for his murder, blackmailer Alek Spera (Visnjic) shows up with a 40-minute videotape of Darby fucking Beau. Though we only get to see a few seconds of it, and blurred and grainy at that, the point gets made: we feel with Margaret the shame and terror of a woman whose suspicions about her son have been borne out in the most brutal and insensitive way conceivable. (“Gaying” this story also is an ironic payback for all those 1930’s and 1940’s films in which Queer-themed stories like Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, Richard Brooks’s The Brick Foxhole — filmed as Crossfire — and James M. Cain’s Serenade were cleaned up and pallidly heterosexualized to fit the iron dictates of the old Production Code.)
Gradually Spera himself becomes an oddly sympathetic character, caught in the middle between his growing guilt over what he’s doing and pressure from his boss, Carlie Nagle (Raymond Barry), to collect the blackmail money and close the deal. In the original this character fell in love with the mother, and that was why he was willing to betray his boss and their plot. McGehee and Siegel have given him a less hackneyed and more subtle and powerful motivation: in an extraordinary scene, left alone in the Halls’ house after he’s helped Margaret resuscitate her father-in-law (Peter Donat) after a stroke, he walks through and gazes at their group photo and all the accoutrements of family — and we get the message: the stable, suburban family lifestyle is exactly what this person has never had, and it’s his yearning for it more than anything else that has so suddenly and unexpectedly tapped the good side of his character.
The Deep End has its flaws, and some of them are inherent in the material. It’s one of those annoying 1940’s plots in which the whole aura of danger and suspense would evaporate immediately if any one of the characters would actually sit down and tell any of the other characters exactly what’s been going on. The whole plot hangs together on the mistakes Margaret, Beau and the other implicated people make, particularly in their attempts to cover things up instead of calling the police and letting them sort things out. To their credit, at least with Beau, McGehee, Siegel and Tucker come together to create a fully credible portrait of an adolescent at just that right annoying age at which it’s a point of honor not to level with anybody, especially not his parents, about what’s really going on in his life. Also, as rich and beautiful as the photography is, and as much as the water symbolism adds to the depth of the piece, it does get overdone well before the end.
Nonetheless, The Deep End emerges as a work of power and beauty, expertly staged by McGehee and Siegel and vividly acted by Swinton, Visnjic and Tucker in a calm, understated way. (Lucas also deserves mention; he’s so good at portraying a certain easily recognizable sort of drug-soaked Gay lounge lizard it’s a pity he gets killed off so early.) Margaret’s conflicts between trying to maintain a normal family life and dealing with blackmailers in the cover-up of a crime are well portrayed and only add to the irony of the piece. And the ending, instead of the simple return to suburban normality that was acceptable to 1947 readers or 1949 filmgoers, is a rich, vivid capstone that suggests Margaret and Beau will share a dark, ineradicable secret for the rest of their lives. The Deep End is both a superb evocation of the classic noir formula and a work that legitimately extends it for a modern audience. — 8/8/01
The film I showed Charles was The Deep End, which I’d reviewed in the September 2001 Zenger’s after attending a screening and writing my review on August 8 — I’d given the film a rave and had always wanted to give Charles the chance to watch it with me. As things turned out, it had recently made its basic-cable debut on the Lifetime network (though it’s far above the usual Lifetime fare and its only commonality with what is usually shown on that channel is that the central character is a woman in some degree of peril) and I had recorded it and the movie on immediately afterwards, one they were pushing hard because it co-starred Michelle Pfeiffer and Ashton Kutcher in a story called Personal Effects about a couple who are drawn together because each has recently suffered the death of a family member.
Charles was considerably less taken with The Deep End than I had been, partly because he was seeing it under far more adverse circumstances (on a recording from commercial TV in which the need to fast-forward past the ads all too often killed the carefully worked out atmosphere and suspense of co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel) and partly because of some minor but still noticeable deletions from the theatrical release. While in the theatrical version we got a tantalizing glimpse of the sex tape between Reese and Beau with which the principal villains, Reno-based scumbag Carlie Nagel (Raymond Barry) and his agent, Alek ‘Al’ Spera (Goran Visnjic) are attempting to blackmail Margaret out of $50,000 (we see just enough of it to notice that it’s Darby fucking Beau and to feel mom’s sense of violation at having her son’s homosexuality confirmed to her in such a singularly brutal and cruel way), on the TV version we don’t get to see any of it at all.
The Deep End is a far better film theatrically than it appeared to be on Lifetime, and this time around I was particularly struck by a theme rarely tapped in the classic noir films that were its inspiration (The Deep End is actually a remake of a 1949 noir, Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment, though in Ophuls’ film it is a straight daughter, not a Gay son, that dates a no-good man and thereby starts the mess from which her mom has to extricate her): the difficulty of interacting with the noir underworld and dealing with the criminal types that haunt it while simultaneously maintaining a normal suburban existence as a single mother of three kids and concealing the noir part of her life with the usual one (especially given that Margaret’s husband may be away at sea — and therefore unreachable for help — but her father-in-law is not only there, he’s played by Peter Donat as the usual irascible old man who’s helped to survive by Alek, who even though he’s there to blackmail Margaret is a decent enough guy that he helps give the old man CPR and saves his life).
Charles thought it was a film with several interesting elements but one that refused to gel as a whole — and under the circumstances I could see why he didn’t like it as well as I did — and he was also annoyed by the ending: it ends, as it begins, with a car crash. The one at the beginning involved Beau and Reese and alerted Margaret to her son’s relationship. The one at the end kills both Nagel and Alek and leaves mother and son alive and legally in the clear but still sharing a dark secret that will haunt them the rest of their lives — an acceptable resolution to the plot but not a really satisfying one. I was hoping Alek would report Nagel to the police, get off with a light (or suspended) sentence and complete the rehabilitation he was already so eloquently and movingly starting on screen (the scene in which he stares at the Halls’ turkey dinner longingly — symbolizing the normal home and family life he had never had and hadn’t realized he wanted until he was confronted with it — is especially powerful, and beautifully acted in a haunting, restrained closeup of Goran Visnjic) instead of the kind of deus ex traffica we actually got. — 12/30/09