Published Aug 01, 2001It's been eight years since Scott McGehee and David Siegel came to the Toronto Film Festival with their remarkable debut film, "Suture." I took the opportunity to talk to them when I saw them at a Dario Argento screening McGehee was politely tolerant of my over-enthused questions while Siegel openly mocked me for harping on an obscure Oshima film. I actually value the experience of being put in my place by people who are a lot smarter than me, and these guys are not only terrifically instinctive filmmakers, but they've got some serious book learning under their belts. McGehee has a PhD in Japanese cinema and Siegel is trained as an architect. If "Suture" foregrounded their more academic leanings, then their long awaited new film, "The Deep End," shows that they've got a knack for re-invigorating the thriller genre. They may not be the Coen brothers, but they have a similar combination of art-house style and Hitchcockian glee.
"The Deep End" is based on a pulpy novel called "The Blank Wall" (the Max Ophuls film, "The Reckless Moment," was adapted from the same material), and it turns the conventions of film noir on their ear. Noir is typically a genre dominated by fears and desires that are intrinsically male by nature, but this story hinges almost entirely on maternal instincts the desire to protect and nurture unconditionally. Tilda Swinton is utterly convincing as Margaret Hall, a mother who gets cornered into covering up an accidental death that will almost certainly implicate her teenage son. She discovers the body of her son's gay lover (a menacing pretty-boy who seethed corruption) by the shore of her family's Lake Tahoe summerhouse, and her first instincts are to unquestioningly hide the body. As soon as she dumps it in the lake and starts covering up evidence, she takes the first step towards implicating herself in the crime (she also had a pre-emptive confrontation with the gay lover in a Reno nightclub). As the film proceeds, she ends up acting more and more like a murderer, simply due to the fact that she refuses to allow her son to take any of the heat.
The tension gets dialed up when a blackmailer named Alek Spira (played by Goran Visnjic) arrives with an incriminating videotape, and a demand for $50,000. But as the panicked negotiations proceed, it starts to look like Margaret, with her shark-like perpetual motion, might be able to turn the tables. This all leads to a subtle, but jaw-dropping shift in the narrative. It's the kind of twist that defies the typical "thriller" mindset, and McGehee and Siegel take full advantage of it they've clearly asked themselves, "How would these people behave if they were genuine human beings, rather than just pawns in a contrived plot?" This defiance of generic conventions creates a dislocating feel to the last half of this film. As a movie viewer, I'm always hyper aware of plot-points and structure, but with "The Deep End," I was blissfully lost as to where it was going to go next.
Even though I've got some caveats with the film (strictly speaking, it has some holes in logic, and it loses some of its potency before the credits roll), it still elevates itself with two knockout performances (Swinton and Visnjic's most intense, morally conflicted moments are all non-verbal) and stylish, but restrained direction. McGehee and Siegel have a knack for knowing just what moments to linger over: the warped image of a face as seen through a droplet of water dangling from a faucet, the strange proximity of two open mouths in the wreckage of a car, creating the impression of a non-consummated kiss, or Swinton emerging from the turquoise water after pushing a body into the lake a baptism of guilt.