This one is for the Hitchcock fans!
Arthur J Pais
Today, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is a forgotten novelist in America. But 50 years ago she was hailed by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock for her powerful suspense tales.
Many of them revolved around women who face extraordinary circumstances. Hitchcock chose her novel, The Blank Wall for his anthology, My Favorites in Suspense in 1959.
Now an independently made film could bring her back in vogue.
For, The Blank Wall is the basis of The Deep End, a gripping mystery film, which began its exclusive engagement in New York and Los Angeles two weeks ago but began expanding to other cities this week. It could be yet another winner for distributor Fox Searchlight which scored an art house hit recently with Sexy Beast which ended its North American run with $6 million.
What makes the film (from relatively new directors, Scott McGehee and David Siegel) a cut above the usual suspense films, is that it also effectively draws a portrait of a family. The film brings out the bond between a mother and her son. It also poses interesting questions about loyalty and sacrifice.
With her husband away at work on a naval ship, Margaret Hall raises her children virtually alone. Her teenage son, Beau, is having an affair with an older gay man. One morning, she wakes to find the corpse of the gay lover on the beach of their rural lakeside home. Suspecting her son is the murderer, she decides to hide the body.
Soon, life becomes even more complicated when Alex Spera, a blackmailer, turns up demanding a hefty sum of money to be delivered within 24 hours. Hall tries to outwit Spera. But the blackmailer is not without redeeming features; he has deep emotional weariness, and begins to doubt his action. Things become even more complicated now, leading to a quietly terrifying climax.
The filmmakers have considerably changed Holding's novel -- maybe for the better.
"The world has changed substantially since stories like The Blank Wall were written, but the pressure to keep things contained is still there, even if we don't talk about it anymore," says Scott McGhee, "especially for suburban mothers who are constantly in service to their families."
One of the key changes the filmmakers made was to make the son gay. In the novel, it was a daughter who had a relationship with an older man.
The filmmakers say in the press notes they didn't add the gay character 'just to up the ant' but to 'put a block in the communication between mother and son'.
The mother (played with intense luminosity by Tilda Swinton) is not homophobic but she does feel strongly that her son is too young to enter into any relationship. She is also afraid how her absentee husband would react if he is told his son gay.
Apart from Swinton's masterful performance, The Deep End offers another interesting piece of acting, from Goran Visnjic as the thug with a heart. With his brooding presence, and eloquent eyes, Visnjic (who plays Dr Luka Kovac in ER) cannot be easily forgotten.
He lends great presence in a sequence that shows a man having a heart attack. Alex Spera is a little hesitant to help in the beginning but he cannot resist his humanity. This sequence is one of the most suspenseful sequences in the film.
Though the film costs about $3 million, it looks gorgeous, thanks to the enchanting visuals provided by Giles Nuttgens.
Nuttgens was signed for the film after the filmmakers saw his work in Deepa Mehta's Fire.
Of course, there are times when one finds it a bit difficult to accept the events in the film. For instance, Hall goes about doing a lot of things, including the hiding the corpse, without sufficiently raising the suspicion of her family.
But the performances and the low-key treatment makes the film a winner. Look out for Swinton during the Oscar nominations. She has been acting for more than 15 years and has played the lead in such critically acclaimed films as Orlando.
But this is the first time she is in a film that is expected to go wide.
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic, Jonathan Tucker, Peter Donat
Writers and directors: David Siegel and Scott McCehee
Cinematographer: Giles Nuttgens
Editor: Lauren Zuckerman
Based on a novel by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding