Mommy dearest

Slick production can't hide The Deep End's musty themes

If there is such a thing as a maternal thriller then The Deep End, a stylish yarn about the depth of mommy love, is it. Co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel examine the quandaries of contemporary motherhood and how difficult it is as a frazzled mom of three to ferry the children to ballet and Little League practice and dispose of a dead body before breakfast.

The Deep End also is one of those buzz-accompanied, edgy films that set Sundance audiences' tongues a-wagging when the film was featured at this year's festival.

But it's hard to figure what all the hype was about in a film whose closest kin is slickly packaged Hollywood fare like What Lies Beneath. The Deep End shares with that film a watery motif, a beautiful, well-groomed star and an elegant but cozy home and garden setting that seems no small part of the film's enticements. The Deep End's cinematographer won an award at Sundance for his work, but it's the production designers whose craft seem more relevant to the film's effects. Deep is far more indebted to the aura of bourgeois contentment conveyed in its Pottery Barn-chic spread, which supplements the film's yearning for an equally comforting notion of Mommy — one who will do anything, risk anything to keep home and family intact.

Art film icon Tilda Swinton plays Margaret, a mother of three with a Navy husband away at sea, whose efforts to defend her nest are nothing short of fierce. When she learns her oldest son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker), a gifted musician headed to college, is involved with the kind of sneering, anchovy-mustached grifter immortalized by Eric Roberts in Star 80, she marches down to the gay club where Darby (Josh Lucas) works and lets him know that she will not let her son be buggered by a predatory thirtysomething.

When Darby later turns up dead on the family's lakefront property, it's up to the resourceful Margaret to mop up her son's "mess." There is something almost comical about how carefully The Deep End's filmmakers McGehee and Siegel work to establish the just-so bourgeois comforts of Margaret's household, so that even corpse disposal is incorporated into her domestic routine between errands to town and laundry.

But Margaret's fleeting involvement with crime opens up a clown's car of hustlers-in-waiting. She is soon blackmailed by another tattooed and handsome grifter, Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic), looking to profit from Darby's murder. The kind of sad-eyed crook capable of making any homemaker turn to mush, Alek has the sort of downy lashes you could sweep your heart out with. Margaret eventually forms a strange alliance with Alek that seems both maternal and sexual, though the pedestal Margaret is placed on never allows her access to more human desires.

The Deep End's tribute to family and mother love seems less about the lonely sacrifices made by Margaret than it is a retrograde retread of Mildred Pierce-era hand-wringing about the self-abusing depths of maternal sacrifice. But whether 21st-century soccer mom or Joan Crawford's postwar homemaker, both Margaret and Mildred come out on the bottom.

The press notes for The Deep End express amazement that the noirish story on which their film is based — 1940s novelist Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's The Blank Wall — first appeared in The Ladies Home Journal "amidst ads for Armour Corned Beef Hash." The implication is that no such artful fare could ever fit within the "lowbrow" brainless pages of a woman's magazine (and that their film project is a far more intelligent forum for the story). But if the authors who wrote the notes ever read such publications, they would know that tales of thankless maternal self-sacrifice and unfulfilled sexual longing are the bread and butter of women's fiction.

Instead, The Deep End's makers manage to put down women and consign them to an archaic role even as they profess to elevate them in this film, which has the slick appearance of a progressive neo-noir but the unmistakably musty odor of business as usual.??