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Into the blue again

Much imitated though his work has been, Hitchcock’s magic is harder to reproduce than one might imagine, and to make a movie that works genuinely and inventively with his legacy is no small achievement.

The narrative of The Deep End is a classic one, familiar from film noir as much as from Hitchcock (or Patricia Highsmith, whom Hitchcock adapted). It is the story of an ordinary person whose life is suddenly thrown into turmoil by events beyond his or her control; it is about the irruption of chaos and criminality into a hitherto nondescript existence. The basic universal thesis being illustrated here is that what appears to be the placid surface of life, in which order and normality are taken for granted, is a membrane of extreme fragility; it is easily ruptured by dark forces that lurk in the depths beneath.

In the case of Hitchcock, the Catholic influence on his early life is sometimes blamed for this sense of the darkness that crowds at the edges of life. And he does seem to have a deep-seated apprehension of what Catholic theology would call original sin: the fact that everyone is automatically guilty, predeterminedly sinful, tainted from a time before our individual births. The Deep End, like Hitchcock’s movies, is hyper-aware of this sense of guilt, one that pervades our lives and actions. But it is not just an individual guilt: it is transferable; it can be displaced on to another person; it can be taken on by another, which is what happens in The Deep End.

One doesn’t need a belief in original sin, though, to find some meaning in such thematic concerns. After all, Freud, whose thought so saturates our sense of our selves, had his own notions roughly equivalent to original sin. We are formed by events that take place at such an early stage in our development that they might as well have happened before birth. They are not susceptible to easy conscious manipulation; they are not always glimpsed at all. They haunt the depths of the subconscious, the deepest currents of our lives. And the context in which such formative events take place is the family, the almost claustrophobic closeness of parent and child, in which protectiveness and suffocation may bleed easily into one another.

This long preamble indicates that I found The Deep End a seriously provocative movie, one that left me with a persistent sense of unease, despite (or emphasised by) the beauty of its images. And having now unpacked its underlying themes, I suppose I’d better get on to the surface.

If we’re talking about surface as in plot, what happens in The Deep End is that Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton) discovers that her son Beau (Jonathan Tucker) not only has a rather unsavoury friend, possibly lover, Darby Reese (Josh Lucas), but is also responsible for his demise. Her instinctive and unquestioning maternal reaction is to cover it up. And that leads to further unpleasant complications for Margaret, involving an ambivalent East European small-time crook (Alek Spera). Her husband is (literally, and ironically) at sea; she has to manage this complex, threatening situation while dealing with the quotidian business of being a mother — getting the children to school and so forth.

The tension is unremitting, building to nerve-racking levels. This suspense is reinforced in no small way by a superb performance from Swinton, one in which nervous energy is barely held in check, in which suppressed hysteria seems constantly pressed upon the very bones of her face. Like Garbo, Swinton can do more with an expressionless face than most actresses can do with their whole body. When she finally bursts into an exhausted, coldly angry tirade, she is simply magnificent.

The other kind of surface we have to consider is the look of the film, and here The Deep End is practically perfect. Set on the shores of Lake Tahoe, in Tahoe City, California, the film makes of the lake itself a central metaphor; it is naturally an organic reality at its centre (which contrasts neatly, however, with the warm wood and honey tones of Margaret’s family home). The Tahoe location is dead right: the air is crystal clear, and the lake’s surface a serene glitter, but it is also, almost tangibly, freezing cold.

The film is shot with restrained beauty. It is coolly minimal, yet it is obvious that every frame has been thought out with meticulous care. The colours themselves carry meaning in an almost subliminal way: a certain blue recurs like a motif, a reminder of water (and neon), and thus guilt. When a vivid splash of red enters the picture, it carries a considerable jolt. It is the red of the heart, the red of blood — the blood that always runs thicker.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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