This bad cinematic year has left little in the way of Oscar-caliber performances so far, much less probable Best Picture nominees. And if it's a stretch to say that "The Deep End" could take home the Academy's most coveted honor, at least this dramatic thriller has one of 2001's truly great best-actress performances.
That performance comes from British actress Tilda Swinton, from whom great things have been expected for a while now (ever since her acclaimed turn in 1992's "Orlando").
In fact, it's Swinton and the other members "The Deep End's" talented cast that help keep it afloat, despite a plot that is somewhat riddled with holes (in particular, a development near the end of the film that is a real eye-roller). But it also features a reality-rooted concept that is the worst nightmare for many a parent.
With her U.S. Navy officer husband at sea, Lake Tahoe housewife Margaret Hall (Swinton) is left to fend for herself, as well as her three children including teenage son Beau (Jonathan Tucker). In his father's absence, Beau has become increasingly withdrawn and has been hiding things from his mother, such as his relationship with a 30-year-old nightclub owner (Josh Lucas).
Naturally, Margaret suspects the worst when the man's body turns up near the family's boathouse. In desperation, she decides to hide the corpse and cover up any trace of his presence.
Unfortunately, she's not completely in the clear. Mystery man Alex Spera (Goran Visnjic, from TV's "ER") has turned up on her doorstep, bearing incriminating videotape evidence. And he wants $50,000, or he'll take the tape to the authorities.
As she frantically tries to find a way to come up with the cash, something occurs that neither the blackmailer nor victim could have expected Alex begins to sympathize with the stressed-out housewife.
Refreshingly, the screenplay, by co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (adapting Elizabeth Sanxay Holding's novel "The Blank Wall") takes a few unexpected turns, and tension is sustained throughout the film's final hour.
But the real draw here is Swinton's subtle and extremely believable portrayal of a mother who will do anything to protect her children. That's not meant to slight the supporting performances, however, including Visnjic and veteran character-actor Peter Donat, who plays Margaret's father-in-law.)
"The Deep End" is rated R for violence (a choking and a struggle), scattered use of strong profanity, a brief scene of simulated gay sex and brief partial male nudity. Running time: 99 minutes.