Movie Review By Casey McCabe
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding was a little-known writer of noir in the 1940s, but among her modest group of fans were the likes of Raymond Chandler, Alfred Hitchcock and Max Ophuls. What I'm guessing they liked about Holding was her ability to wrench suspense not just from acts of greed, lust and desperation, but from the sometimes chillingly mundane aspects of daily life. It's not that Holding's main characters were women. They were housewives and mothers. And with a premise as simple as: how far would a mother go to protect her child? we enter some fascinating psychological territory.
That was the basis for Holding's 1947 novel "The Blank Wall". Ophuls borrowed from "The Blank Wall" to make his 1949 melodrama "The Reckless Moment" starring James Mason and Joan Bennet. Now the story has been resurrected by San Francisco filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel as "The Deep End" starring Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic.
Though Holding was considered ahead of her time it wasn't far enough to avoid some retooling. The daughter with a murdered lowlife lover is now a gay son with a lowlife lover who dies quite by accident. The Lake Tahoe setting is surprisingly sunny blue and green for a film noir. None of these changes seems particularly necessary, but then they are secondary to the mother anyway. In modern mother Margaret Hall, we find that fifty years worth of feminist enlightenment have done remarkably little. A mother is still expected to take care of everyone's smallest need, keep the house in order, and even if her husband is away for weeks at a time, to keep complaints to herself. Through Tilda Swinton, one of the most economical actors in the world, Margaret Hall's deep rivers of loneliness, duty, fear and arousal are spoken only with the tiniest tightening of the face, or slight pause before asking someone a small favor.
Lately, pundits and SUV makers have been casting the modern mother as a heroic Soccer Mom. But she looks just as tired and unfulfilled as ever. And this is the perfect place for our premise to go to work. In addition to shuttling the kids from school to music lessons, running errands for a live-in father-in-law, doing the laundry, paying the bills and getting dinner on the stove, Margaret Hall has to dispose of a body and find one hundred thousand dollars to pay her blackmailers. Without flinching, she puts it on her mental to-do list. And we suspect the sometimes timid but ever determined mother will get this mess cleaned up, just like everything else. .
Yet this is where "The Deep End" gets itself into trouble. The filmmakers cannot have their noir and eat it, too. Having relied on understatement for much of the film, and slowly draining more suspense than they create, they are left with some huge pieces to resolve: romance, retribution and comeuppance. This is all handled rather abruptly with devices that come speeding in from a completely different movie....a thriller that wouldn't pretend to be understated. A film from the '40s perhaps.
But it's not homage. It's convenience. Which is why "The Deep End" left me feeling cheated. A feeling somewhat mitigated by being well enticed in the first place. And by Tilda Swinton's performance, among the best of the year.
© 2001 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 8/15/01
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