BY LYLE HENRETTY
Daily Arts Editor
Published September 13, 2001
As an actress, Tilda Swinton looks so normal she almost appears freakish on the big screen, where any pretty face with an iota of acting ability can be hailed as the next best thing. Swinton"s beauty lies in her strong face and deep eyes, which she seems to have complete artistic control over. While many actors rely on quivering lips and various degrees of eye-squinting to relate their characters state of melancholy to the viewer, Swinton can project more feeling with a twitch of a cheek muscle than most Hollywood actresses could with their whole bodies (silicon enhanced or otherwise).
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Swinton has brought an air of professionalism and integrity to such varied roles as the title character in Sally Potter"s surreal adaptation of Virginia Woolfe"s "Orlando" to her devastating turn as Margaret Hall in Scott McGehee and David Siegel"s "The Deep End."
Based on Elisabeth Sanxay Holding"s story "The Blank Wall," the viewer encounters Margaret driving through the washed out hues of Lake Tahoe to a boxy, harmless-looking building that houses a gay strip club. Margaret implores that the seedy (a trite adjective, but the only one that really fits) owner Darby Reese (Josh Lucas) to stay away from her teenage son. Reese turns up at her home that evening, pledging statutory love, and turns up floating in the lake that borders the Hall"s backyard the next morning.
While the audience is aware this is an accident, Margaret believes her son has slain the greasy beast to save himself. The film delves into Margaret"s personal hell as she turns from human to animal, fiercely protecting her young from the watchful eye of the police.
After a harrowing first half, with Margaret slowing shedding her middle-class veneer to as she dumps the body and attempts to cover up her son"s involvement with Reese, wayward blackmailer Alek (Goran Visnjic) shows up and all of the internal tension is torn from Margaret and made external. Alek and his anonymous partner have a concrete evidence linking Reese to Margaret"s son, a link that shows just how far their relationship had gone. With the introduction of the haunting Visnijic, the film"s tension ratchets up another notch, making the film almost unbearable to watch.
To the viewers immediate relief (and, ultimately, the detriment of the film), Margaret strikes up an uneasy relationship with the blackmailer. She finally has an ally, even if she can"t completely confide in him.
While this does not destroy the film"s uncomfortable atmosphere, it alleviates it slightly. This comes off as a weak move from a writer who abandoned his own concept, or possibly a frightened producer with a strong desire to placate the audience.
While the relationship never slips past a troubled camaraderie, it is still too convenient for a film that forces the viewer to contemplate such devastating themes.
The Lake Tahoe setting, as it should in a film of this caliber, becomes a character unto itself. The beautiful lakefront becomes oppressive, as Margaret drowns in her own anguish, and the audience in the films unrelenting pain and tension.
As Margaret begins to loose control of her life, the viewer feels as if they are loosing control of the film. One almost wants to get up and leave in parts, yet the desire for catharsis grips them until the final reel. The ending itself is a study in minimalism, despite a seeming climactic battle between Alek and his ruthless partner. The ending is as painful as the rest of the film, and just as realistic.
Croation Visnijic has had several smaller film roles, but is most probably know for his role on TV"s "ER" as Dr. Luka Kovac. He is a fine actor and his Alek is necessarily complex. He does his best to make the move from blackmailer to supporter.
While he is not as gifted as Swinton, Visnijic understands how to use his naturally steely eyes as a wall hiding his soul from the outside. He stands on his own in scenes with Swinton, and he makes a possibly one-note character into a living, shocking human being.
The rest of the cast mostly stays out of Visnijic and Swinton"s way, attempting to make small impressions. The weakest link is Lucas, who comes off as such a monster that there is no emotional reaction to his death.
Character actor Peter Donat plays Margaret"s kind but clueless father-in-law. Donat is a pro and can pull off his kind-yet-gruff demeanor to a T, without falling into caricature. Jonathan Tucker, as Margaret"s son, is appropriately antagonistic towards his mother, yet portrays the young man as deeply pained by his confused sexuality and inability to communicate with his caring mother.
Their relationship is one of the most realistic in recent film memory, not simply showing rivalry between parent and child, but the actual break-down of simple discussion and alienation that leads to fighting and awkward silences.
This film should be honored at Oscar time.