The Deep End (review)

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Mother of Invention

See, this is how important casting is. Put, say, Valerie Bertinelli in this tale of a mother doing everything she must to spare her child upset, and watch it sink to the depths of Lifetime’s Sunday night lineup. Not even two obviously classy and talented comers like writing/directing team Scott McGehee and David Siegel could save the proceedings from themselves.

But cast Tilda Swinton in the role of, as she is offhandedly referred to by a bit player here, “somebody’s mom,” and all of a sudden you’ve got a story about domestic discord that is compulsively watchable. Swinton, for whom even sexual passion in Orlando and guruing in paradise in The Beach were fascinatingly icy, couldn’t possibly be the first actress who springs to mind when one thinks “motherly.” And indeed, here, in The Deep End, the riveting new thriller from McGehee and Siegel, hers is a distant, unfussy maternal presence — she’s not a mom who ever raises her voice, but her kids wouldn’t dare court her ire. She probably doles out hugs on an unspoken, regular timetable, sure to see that everyone gets one but never two, lest the fair balance of these things be thrown off.

Margaret Hall (Swinton) has her life quite nicely organized, thank you very much. Perfectly capable of running a smooth operation while her husband, a Navy commander, is away and often unreachable for months at a time, she keeps her brood of three on schedule: soccer practice, band practice, ballet practice, school, play dates. A disruption of the smooth order of things is unthinkable, an insult to her organizational skills. But disruption does come, and from the direction Margaret foresaw: her teenaged son Beau (Jonathan Tucker: The Virgin Suicides). A senior in high school, his hormones are a mess — very bad when one is trying to run a tight ship — and his adolescent sexual exploration has taken a turn that makes Mom uncomfortable: Beau is discovering that he’s gay. Messy.

But then events transpire that threaten to put Beau in a very bad light, and the situation is far more dangerous than a threat of gossip about whom her eldest child is sleeping with. And that’s the point at which I, who up till now had been thinking: “Gee, she’s kind of a cold bitch — glad she’s not my mom,” realized the beauty of her performance and the genius of McGehee and Siegel in hiring her. This is a woman who will protect her child to the death. She will do it alone, and she will do what needs to be done, and we’ve no doubt she’s capable of things that would send my mom and yours running. Unlike your typical Made for Lifetime Movie Mom, who panics and runs in circles and screams things like “Oh dear god no not without my baby!!” for two hours (minus commercials for diapers), Margaret barely even pauses to consider whether the highly questionable and definitely illegal things she gets up to are the right path to take. The same cool reason that you know keeps her household budget on track to the penny now dictates her course of action.

Forget trying to predict what will happen — this is the rare suspense flick that utilizes actual suspense to keep you intrigued. Even the appearance of a blackmailer, Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic: Practical Magic), with something more to hurt Beau — and the unusual relationship that develops between Alek and Margaret — doesn’t follow any preordained path.

This is a far better version of What Lies Beneath: a tale of lies, secrets, and death in what should be the safest of settings — home — that becomes an implied metaphor for all that mothers do for their children that goes unnoticed. Kinda like how your mom made your favorite bologna- and- peanut- butter sandwiches for you every day in the fourth grade. Sure, Margaret is on the phone trying to raise $50,000 in blackmail money while she does the laundry, but the concept is the same: the satisfaction for Mom comes not in the kid realizing what was done on his behalf, but in her knowledge that her child is worth everything she has to give him.

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