Off the Deep End

Take the plunge into an outstanding thriller.

The summer, the glut of bad films has continued with the same ineluctability as the entropic decay of the sun. Critics have become so desperate that they're actually saying nice things about Nicole Kidman just because she never once obviously forgets her lines in her latest attempt at acting. Or maybe they're just impressed by her perfectly coiffed head of flame-red hair.

Luckily, the majestic race of red-haired people needn't be embarrassed by their filmic representative any longer. Translucent-skinned redhead Tilda Swinton, who may well be Scotland's finest actress (tantamount to being England's best chef or America's most cultured news anchor), heads up one of the most engaging films of the year, The Deep End, a noir thriller with more twists than a Chubby Checker concert.

While lack of stupidity alone would set The Deep End apart from most summer movies, that's not enough to make it a fabulous viewing experience. No, fabulous viewing experiences either require Brad Pitt without a shirt or the skillful articulation of a story. Disappointing all the B. Pitt fans out there, but thrilling those of us who like some things even more than Pitt's tawny nipples, Deep End goes for the latter approach and succeeds in a way reminiscent of such noir classics as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.

Filmed in sumptuous natural light reminiscent of cinematographer Sven Nyqvist's work from the '60s (except that Deep End is in color), the film tells the tale of middle-aged mom Margaret Hall (Swinton) who's discovered that her 17-year-old son is having an affair with a 30-year-old man. When the man, a skeezy con artist named Darby Reese, who's played to unctuous perfection by Josh Lucas, shows up at Hall's Tahoe home at three in the morning, he gets in a fight with Hall's son, Beau (Jonathon Tucker), and winds up falling off their dock and impaling himself on the anchor of their tiny dinghy.

The next morning, Margaret finds the body and, thinking that her son killed him, she sets out to hide the evidence. Not being a noir fan, apparently, Margaret doesn't know that setting out to hide evidence always leads to an engaging and thrilling set of plot twists.

The handsomest of the twists comes in the form of Goran Visnjic, best known in America for playing Dr. Luka Kovac on ER. Visnjic is smashing as a blackmailer with a heart of gold who begins by trying to extort 50,000 large from beleaguered Margaret and winds up giving CPR to her dying father-in-law. That odd development alone is enough to give Deep End the award for most creative plot of the year, but things get weirder and weirder without ever leaving the realm of the believable.

The acting, too, is hyper-natural in spite of the intensity of the emotions at play. Tilda Swinton is unparalleled as Margaret, doing a perfect American accent and using her odd looks to convey extremely complex emotions as she simultaneously deals with revelations about her son's sexuality, the thought that he's murdered his lover, and her increasingly complicated relationship with his blackmailer.

The camera work also holds mostly to the naturalistic, though there are a few intensely cool noir moments, as when a hanging drop of water reflects an entire room. Cinematographer Greg Nuttgens thoroughly redeems himself for having anything to do with Battlefield Earth by using his effects sparingly. Properly spaced, these effects seem more potent than 20 exploding spaceships attacking a cadre of spandex-wearing, super-powered dinosaurs. You know, the dinosaurs that can see dead people.

Lacking dinosaurs, Deep End makes do with fine writing. The dialogue seems like the kind of thing that someone who was well-educated and spoke in well-formed sentences would actually say when confronted with death, blackmail and the overwhelming beauty of Lake Tahoe. The plot unfolds at the perfect pace. One of the great errors of suspense films is in giving too much away in big chunks (this is the big problem with The Matrix, for example, which starts out with a mystery and then goes into 45 minutes of expository dialogue). The Deep End manages to place the plot points at an appropriate distance from each other, and it never reveals everything. In fact, in a sort of reverse-Rashomon, the audience winds up knowing more than any of the characters, which is a fun trick that popular films are afraid to employ, since there's an unwritten rule that the lead characters have to eventually get the whole story.

Whether or not they can handle the truth, nobody in The Deep End quite gets it. Layers of confusion and misunderstanding pile up like Cenozoic silt, and questions are frequently asked and not answered. All this makes for some intensely fun viewing as the audience remains one step ahead of the characters and one step behind the writers.

For fans of the genre, The Deep End is a must-see, and even if you're not a noir-head, you might just want to check it out for Tilda Swinton's hot performance and the cool, cool cinematography of Greg Nuttgens.

The Deep End is not showing in any theaters in the area.

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