A review of  The Deep End” by Jeanne Aufmuth


Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: R for emotional intensity, sexuality, a scene of violence

Run Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes


How far would you go to protect your child?  The answer is explored with imperturbable emotion in this unflinching portrait of a woman on the edge.

Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton) is a fully functioning mom, i.e. loan officer, chauffeur, short-order cook, and crises therapist.  Margaret and family live a comfortable lifestyle in a swanky neighborhood on the woodsy shores of Lake Tahoe.  Hubby is a naval officer frequently away at sea, so Margaret does the bulk of her parenting solo.  With three active kids and a frail father-in-law to manage, there’s never a dull moment at Casa Hall.  When eldest son Beau (Jonathan Tucker), a gifted trumpeter bound for college on a music scholarship, gets caught up in a homosexual affair with a cocky Reno club-owner, Margaret boldly steps in and tries to put an end to the relationship. It’s a fait accompli when she discovers lover boy’s body washed up alongside their pier, dead as a doornail.

Margaret is first and foremost a mother, and moms clean up messes. Fearful of Beau’s criminal involvement, she disposes of the corpse in the frigid waters of Tahoe and destroys the supplementary evidence.  Unexpectedly, dark stranger Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic) appears from out of the blue, demanding $50,000 to keep quiet about some incriminating information regarding Beau and his deceased lover.

Billed as a thriller, “The Deep End” is as much about complicated family dynamics as it is about thrills. Controlled by carpools, water polo practices, and relentless snack prep,  Margaret is steadfastly attached to the mother merry-go-round while anxiously trying to claw her way out of the web of blackmail and treachery that threatens to destroy her fragile familial bonds. Driven to the breaking point by fear and desperation, and consumed by guilt, she operates on a fearful auto-pilot, well aware that the risks she takes will have dreadfully irreversible implications.

A perpetual state of viewer discomfort exists as much for Margaret’s schedule upheaval (to which I can unfortunately relate) as for the nightmarish chain of events, both of which are portrayed with calculated, escalating tension.  The film is layered with chilly symbolic references – cold, clear liquids and cool blue tones- emphasizing Margaret’s steely control and determination to keep her head above water.  Startling splashes of red lend emotional punch at subtly dramatic moments. 

Swinton (“Orlando”) is phenomenal as a mother desperate to protect and connect with her retreating teenage son. Tucker is convincingly troubled, and Croatian sensation Visnjic smolders as the conflicted ruffian whose menacing demeanor conceals a sensitive core.  Based on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s riveting 1940s novel The Blank Wall, this is an unremitting nightmare of comfortable domesticity gone frighteningly awry.