Who are you?
Based on the 1947 novel "The Blank Wall" by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, The Deep End is actually the second film version of that novel to grace the silver screen. The first was released in 1949 as The Reckless Moment and starred an over-the-top Joan Bennett as the lead and James Mason as the heavy. 2001's The Deep End is the second feature length film from the San Francisco based writing/directing team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Their first film, Suture, garnered them serious critical acclaim and with The Deep End, they are now batting a thousand. The Deep End comes to us via Fox and all the strong points we have come to expect from them are in evidence. A good transfer, excellent sound and enough special content to keep us DVD reviewers occupied for a couple of hours.
Facts of the Case
Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton, The Beach) is a mother who is unafraid to protect her children. When she thinks her oldest child is associating with someone he should not be, she travels and confronts the bad influence. When this bad influence shows up at their Lake Tahoe home later that night, a fight breaks out and an accident occurs. Because mother and son don't really speak, Margaret assumes the worst when she finds this man's body lying dead on the shore the following morning. Taking matters into her own hands, Margaret is intent on taking care of the problem. Yet, the more she tries to help and to work her way out of things, the deeper her troubles become.
With that, we now end our plot run-down, for to tell much more would ruin the surprises that lurk in The Deep End, and where is the fun in that?
It's funny, but I've been in an Alfred Hitchcock mindset of late. Maybe it's because I recently reviewed Joy Ride, ran into Robert Zemekis' What Lies Beneath on cable the other day, and followed that up with David Fincher's Panic Room, but everywhere I turn, cinematically speaking, Hitch has been looming large. So imagine my surprise when I popped in The Deep End, a movie I had not heard of, and found the best Hitchcock-like thriller in decades on proud display.
As is the case with most thrillers in this classic style, The Deep End is built upon a simple, yet incredibly strong premise: the love a mother feels for her son and the lengths that she will go to protect him. Understand that, and you understand everything that drives this movie. As is the case with the best of Hitchcock movies, the central character is basically innocent but acts guilty, and the more she tries to dig herself out of her situation, the more things spin out of control. As an audience, we know that she is innocent, but we must endure the pain with her because no one else in the movie knows what we do. The plot even features a Hitchcock style "McGuffin." for the uninitiated a McGuffin is a plot device that makes an object or an action seem more important than it really is, giving the plot something to focus on as it moves on to what it really wants to show. In this case, the McGuffin is a videotape that pushes the central characters toward their actions, resulting in the movie's climax. To top off the film's Hitchcock tone and execution, the film's directors make a quick little cameo.
As writers/directors, McGehee and Siegel show they possess a tight grip on their material, mining it for all its worth. There is desperation, fear, pathos, and a dark sense of humor laced throughout the proceedings, and these conflicting emotions weave themselves into the subtext of the story. They have written about people we come to truly care about, which is the most important factor for any movie, regardless of genre. As directors, they have a wonderful awareness of pace and economy. Every shot is well positioned and nothing goes on longer than it should. Tension is maximized, but never at the expense of the characters or their motivations. In a movie where bad things are compounded on top of even worse things to a character we come to like, there is a risk of pushing things too far, but its a tribute to the skill of McGehee and Siegel that everything in The Deep End just "feels" right. From the cinematography of Giles Nuttgens (Battlefield Earth) to the production design of Kelly McGehee and Christopher Tandon, there is a very tangible and serene beauty on display. This palpable stillness permeates the blue and green saturated look of the film, giving it a coolness that stands in direct contrast to the emotions that rage beneath the surface. This artistic choice made by the directors is matched by the performance of Tilda Swinton. Swinton is one of those rare performers who is able to get across the deepest of emotions, seemingly while doing nothing at all. She has the most expressive eyes that truly provide a window to her deepest emotions. There is intelligence to her portrayal of Margaret Hall; she shows a deep love and concern for her children that is combined with the profound loneliness of a woman who has pushed her own needs to the side. Every action she takes during the course of the movie, no matter how questionable, is easily traced back to the love for her children and the need to protect them from the world. It is this love and her almost compulsive need to be secretive and strong that gets her into deeper and deeper trouble. It is a remarkable performance from a woman who stands at the front of the new generation of leading actresses. All due respect to Halle Berry's stunning performance in Monster's Ball, but with The Deep End Tilda Swinton was right up there last year and she deserved at the very least an Oscar nomination, if not the win.
As the other dancer in this tango of loneliness, Goran Visnjic (television's ER) is equally impressive, if in different ways, as the blackmailing Alex Spera. If Swinton shows a woman who is surprised to learn she can care for someone beyond her family circle, Spera is shocked to find he can care for anyone at all. Swinton's is a more quiet performance, rather like the tide as it moves closer to shore, whereas Visnjic is more like the distant rumbling of storm clouds. Visnjic also has the size and the mass to dwarf Swinton, but through what he begins to feel and see, Visnjic becomes little more than a child just as alone and confused as Swinton's character. Because of this unexpected innocence, his performance grows into one that shows the redemption for a human soul. It is proof that no matter how unsavory someone's life may be, there is always a glimmer of humanity lurking and waiting for the right person or action to bring it forward. These are all subtle actions that if left in the hands of under-skilled performers would not be easily seen or clumsily handled, causing the movie to skink and drown. Fortunately, both Swinton and Visnjic have all the talent necessary. As they succeed, so does the effectiveness of The Deep End.
If the production and performances of The Deep End are effective, then so is Fox's DVD version of the movie. Shown in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and given anamorphic treatment, The Deep End features a very good, if not perfect, transfer. What the image does do a great job with is recreating the deep blues and greens that are so much a part of The Deep End. This color scheme is as much a character in the movie as are Swinton and Visnjic, and the transfer does not disappoint. Colors are rich as well as vibrant while flesh tones look to be realistic. If there is any real shortcoming, it is the lack of depth to be found in the black levels and the lack of detail found in the shadows. There is also some noticeable edge enhancement or ringing present at times. Still, overall it's a good looking transfer and one that was struck from pristine source material.
Sound is equally, if not more, proficient than the video. While I would not deem The Deep End an action movie, it is a pretty effective in raising the stakes in a thriller-like manner. It is here that the sound really sparkles. With the 5.1 Dolby mix, a great sense of atmosphere and space is created. The mix is generally front loaded but it does mix in the sound of water and of waves into the surrounds. The mix envelopes the room in a way that enhances the texture of the film going experience. It is an excellent example of what 5.1 can be—not showy, but simply another tool to make the home theater experience like that of the movie theater.
The extras package is a good group of supplements. First up is a commentary track with the writing/directing tandem of Scott McGehee and David Siegel. This is a rather informative, low key commentary that goes into the history and production of The Deep End with some detail. Both men seem comfortable and proud of the finished product without ever getting pretentious. There is in fact a good- natured tone to their discussion that speaks well of both participants. It's not the greatest commentary in the world, but it's an easy listen for fans of the film. Next is a feature with substantially more interest: "The Anatomy of a Scene" from cable's Sundance Channel. Running around 30 minutes, this is a great breakdown of the film's pivotal sequence. It is informative and immediate as it conveys the artistic choices that comprise the finished product. There is a brief production featurette that stands in direct contrast to the substance of the Sundance piece, while the package is closed out by a still gallery and some theater and television spots.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No real complaints here. The transfer could have been a little better, but it is really nothing to stop anyone from picking up this disc.
Discovering movies like The Deep End and writing about them is one of the main pleasures I derive from working here at the Verdict. Great thrillers that move through the actions of well written characters instead of computer enhanced special effects are a rare thing in movies these days, and The Deep End is certainly a shining example of this kind of moviemaking. A smart thriller that makes the viewer care about what happens to its protagonists, The Deep End is a rich and well textured film that gains power with each viewing. It is definitely one of the best movies of 2001 and it deserves the greater attention that will hopefully come with its release on home video. This is very much a "buy it" disc for me, and one that I hope everyone will enjoy as much as I did.
Innocent! The Deep End is a marvelous example of pure filmmaking. Hats off to everyone involved and let's hope Scott McGehee and David Siegel find the commercial success they so richly deserve.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel
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