A couple of weeks ago, I saw The Deep End, a quiet noir set in the California communities surrounding Lake Tahoe. The thriller had me on the edge of my seat, but not from fear. I was frustrated.
Adapted from Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s 1947 novel The Blank Wall by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the film loses little of the story’s 1940s mores, which is what makes it so difficult to fathom. Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton) runs a tight ship at home while her naval officer husband is at sea. The directors recast the daughter from the novel as a closeted gay son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker). His sexuality and Margaret’s uptightness are supposed to explain their stilted rapport.
When Beau’s sleazy club owner boyfriend, Darby Reese (Josh Lucas), turns up dead on the Halls’ pier, Margaret erroneously assumes her son’s guilt and launches into a Herculean 48-hour damage-control mission—all the while maintaining her domestic rituals. She never lets anything shatter the impenetrable veneer of her June Cleaver-esque household, not even murder. Because of her ludicrous degree of self-containment, Beau is oblivious to her tremendous efforts to protect him.
I think I’ve finally discovered the source of my restlessness: How could these people be so evasive when murder was at stake? I know my Jewish mother would’ve fired an endless stream of questions at me until she got an explanation. I couldn’t imagine an Italian or black mother tolerating this kind of mystery either. The suspense of this drama depends on the innuendo, the shushes, and the unfinished sentences.
In fact, the movie’s entire plot depends heavily on WASP repression, as is the case with so many other dramas. It’s what keeps a tearful Sally Kenton (Emma Thompson) and a stoic James Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) from acknowledging their love in The Remains of the Day. It’s what drives Trish Maplewood (Cynthia Stevenson) to remain insanely unaware of her husband’s pedophilic proclivities in Happiness. It’s what sustains Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) and Calvin Jarrett’s (Donald Sutherland) marriage for so long after Buck’s (Scott Doebler) death and Conrad’s (Timothy Hutton) suicide attempt in Ordinary People.
We’ve seen it so many times that we now accept it as a regular plot device, used to heighten suspense and romantic tension. In The Ice Storm, this convention is effective because it explains the marital difficulties of the Hoods, who still love each other but have forgotten how to communicate, and their neighbors the Carvers, who stay together even though their relationship has long since disintegrated. Only Mikey Carver’s death (Elijah Wood) during the ice storm can thaw their emotional reserve. What emerges is plausible: Even though Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver) remains true to her chilly nature by staying in bed, Jim Carver (Jamey Sheridan) openly weeps while holding his son’s frozen body, and Ben (Kevin Kline) and Elena Hood (Joan Allen) finally reach out to each other. Tragedy erodes the WASP exterior to show characters to whom we can relate and understand.
It also succeeds in The Remains of the Day, which unfolds between the World Wars. James Stevens’ job as an English butler is to uphold the decorum of Lord Darlington’s estate. Although he takes this career to extremes—leaving his father’s deathbed to supervise an international dinner party, acceding to his master’s request to fire two capable Jewish servants, and sacrificing his relationship with housekeeper Sally Kenton—his behavior is evocative of the context and period in which he lives and is therefore credible.
Emotional suppression was once a more probable plot device, back when it was more of the norm. Mothers were supposed to emulate Doris Day, the dulcet-voiced American girl who kept the cocktails coming for her unwitting guests while her son was in the hands of kidnappers in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Fathers were staid breadwinners like Jimmy Stewart, who sedated his emotional wife to protect her from the truth and rarely lost his cool. But these portrayals no longer ring true to the average American viewer. Now the WASP represents a quaint reminder of a lost era, a time in which people conformed to the middle-class promise of prosperity, piety, and wholesome goodness. And emotional repression is a peculiarity, often to be overcome in order for characters to realize their potential. Even WASPs don’t act like WASPs anymore!
That is, except for The Deep End’s Margaret Hall, who miraculously juggles blackmailers and laundry cycles in the face of truly unbelievable circumstances. Just after she heaves a dead body into the lake, dives back in to fetch car keys from the corpse’s pocket, drives to Reno to dump the car, and walks all the way home, Margaret slips seamlessly back into her role as the Perfect Suburban Mom. Only moments after she arrives home, Margaret arranges her carpool shift with another Tahoe mom—never once betraying the fact that she has cleaned up the mess of a lifetime before 10 a.m.
At the conclusion of The Deep End, there’s a moment when it finally looks like Margaret will break down, reach out, seek help—be human. But Beau stops her. Although the film concludes with a weepy hug between parent and child, their embrace symbolizes their collusion of silence. And this is why the film ultimately fails. In relying excessively on this narrative contrivance, McGehee and Siegel have asked too much of voluble 21st-century filmgoers.