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How Much Deeper? 

The foundation of the noir thriller long has been the exploration of what ordinary people would do in extraordinary circumstances. From Hitchcock to Polanski, real people have grappled with the surreal. And for the most part, the beauty of so many of these films have been that very juxtaposition, heightened even more so by just how surreal the world can become.

Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel take that convention one step further in The Deep End, based on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's novel The Blank Wall, by removing the absurdity of the situation and making it seem very real. Almost too real, in fact, which may be part of this otherwise intriguing film's undoing in spite of ennobling performances by the two leads. Here, McGehee and Siegel take a flustered suburban housewife and mother of three -- by definition someone in a constant struggle for survival -- and tests her mettle even further, especially when that struggle is heightened by the specter of murder and blackmail.

But unlike so many of its predecessors, The Deep End's style comes virtually from its paradoxical settings and cinematography. You might even call this a "blanc" thriller; instead of moving in the shadows of the dark, McGehee and Siegel place the story in the vivid light of day that lights up Nevada's Lake Tahoe. Sunlight floats atop the waves on the shore; wind snakes through lush green trees; the sky is a perpetual blue canvas. (Giles Nuttgrens won the Best Cinematography Award at the Sundance Film Festival.)

Instead of the "wrong man," they present the wrong woman in Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton), whose maternal instincts are in a constant state of challenge. With her naval husband out at sea, Margaret's left to raise her talented musician son Beau (Jonathan Tucker) and two younger siblings while keeping an eye on her ailing father-in-law (Peter Donat). In between doing the laundry and picking up the kids, Margaret must deal with her son's burgeoning affair with a seedy nightclub owner that very quickly ends in death. When it appears her son is the culprit, Margaret swings into action and hides the body, only to find herself the target of shady types who know about the affair and use it to extract money from Margaret that the victim owed them.

So into her life comes one of the partners, Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic, of TV's ER), who quickly seems like the blackmailer with a heart of gold. The more pressure he puts on Margaret, the more he realizes how impossible a situation his partner has placed her in -- and, subtly, how much he loves her.

It's an unspoken love, though, and this along with the exploration of Margaret's maternal instincts is where McGehee and Siegel truly excel. The Deep End, it appears, is the spaces that lie between us all, the gaps of communication that could make everything right, but never seem to. If she had questioned her son better, Margaret would have had a better idea of what to do with a corpse in her backyard dock. If she came clean to her father-in-law, maybe she could come up with enough money to satisfy her kidnapers. If she'd just go to the cops and explain everything, maybe she wouldn't be in this mess at all.

But we all know that human relationships are not that simple. We hold our tongue and work around our own emotional roadblocks. So Margaret presses on, working the phones with credit card companies while begging Alek for more time (which he's more and more willing to give, as he quietly envisions what a normal life with a normal wife might be like) and hiding a body she didn't kill.

This is where Swinton is at her best. Her pursed lips and darting eyes convey a woman in constant search for any tool that can fix her situation. That's what mothers do: solve problems, clean stains, shepherd the flock. It's no small symbol that her husband is out at sea, leaving her to her own physical and emotional abyss. Like so many women, she's forced to fend for herself, and Swinton brings a refreshingly subdued dignity to a role that's traditionally a walking panic attack.

All that is very well and good, and McGehee and Siegel deserve a great deal of credit for bringing an original approach to the genre. But, after the novelty of that approach begins to wear off, the problem remains: Where are the chills? What do you do when a thriller doesn't thrill? As Margaret and Alek head toward what feels like an inevitable conclusion (OK, it's a noir thriller after all), the viewer's left with the question: Is that all there is?

Instead, we're left with what we have, which is an earnest little film that plays with conventions and offers new ideas. Which in itself is far better than the rest of what's out there.

click to enlarge Margaret (Tilda Swinton) tries to buy time from one of her blackmailers, Alek (Goran Visnjic), in The Deep End.
  • Margaret (Tilda Swinton) tries to buy time from one of her blackmailers, Alek (Goran Visnjic), in The Deep End.
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