Screened at Sundance (Dramatic Competition). Dirs: Scott McGehee, David Siegel. US. 2001. 99mins.

Without the brilliant Tilda Swinton, The Deep End, Scott McGehee and David Siegel's neo-noir, would have been just another technically accomplished thriller. With her, however, the film assumes a strong dramatic center and emotional resonance that elevates it way beyond a loose remake of Max Ophuls' 1949 classic, The Reckless Moment. This impressive, long-in-the-works sophomore effort fulfills the promise shown by McGehee and Siegel in Suture, their 1992 stylish feature debut. A shrewd marketing campaign should enable Fox Searchlight to score big with both the arthouse and noir aficionados crowds.

At first glance, The Deep End appears to be a generic work that recycled elements from classic noirs of the late 1940s, particularly those centering on the blackmail of an innocent protagonist attempting to conceal a crime. However, a closer look warrants the film an honorable status all its own, a result of some crucial narrative strands, terrific mise-en-scene, and above all, Giles Nuttgens' luminous cinematography, which was deservedly cited with a Sundance jury award.

The Deep End has altered the original story's locale from Balboa, California to Lake Tahoe, a stunningly serene place where people live quiet, uneventful lives. The film has also taken liberties with its original source material, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding's novel, The Blank Wall, by transforming the central relationship from a mother-daughter to a mother-gay son. The plot is rather simple: Handsome teenager Beau Hall (Jonathan Tucker) has fallen under the spell of the seductive and sleazy Darby Reese (Josh Lucas) with whom he has an affair. An almost fatal car accident, a result of reckless partying, sends alarm signals to Jonathan's distressed mother, Margaret (Swinton), who's unaware of her son's deviant sexuality. Ignoring her warning to steer clear of Jonathan, Darby intrudes into her lake-front house, and a vocal argument between him and Jonathan turns into a fight resulting in Darby's death.

The next morning, Margaret finds Darby impaled on an anchor on the lake surrounding her home. With her husband away and nowhere to turn for help, she quickly disposes of Darby's body and car, unaware of the existence of an incriminating videotape of Darby and her boy engaged in sexual intercourse. Soon after the body is found, Margaret becomes victim to a bunch of blackmailers, and from this point on, the narrative shifts from a noir thriller to a morality tale about a mother's unconditional love for her son. Margaret tries desperately to raise the money, but repeatedly fails to meet the deadline. Then, quite inexplicably, one of the blackmailers, Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic), softens, but his change of heart puts both in danger with the lethal big boss, Charlie Nagle (Raymond Barry). In his hopeless fascination with Margaret and self-sacrifice to protect her, Alek's character defies a prototypical noir crook. Like Ophuls, who cast the young James Mason against type by having him play an introspective loner out of place with his criminal associates, McGehee and Siegel have done well to cast the appealing Yugoslav actor Visnic as a compassionate villain who sees Margaret as his hope for spiritual salvation.

What distinguishes The Deep End, whose story line is analogous to several predecessor noirs, is the strong maternal figure, which compensates for some implausible plot points, dubious motivations, and underdeveloped secondary characters. Indeed, the heroine is a morally innocent woman, who does break the law because her values can't accept any disruption of her family. Persuasive in detailing her actions and motivations, Swinton portrays a woman who was ordinary before her ordeal began; viewers ought to have no problem identifying with her middle-class perspective.

The visual aspects, too-long takes and fluid camera movement, stress the commonplace quality of Margaret's existence and surroundings. Unlike noir stories, which are typically set at night and depict invaded mansions with dark corners and menacing shadows, The Deep End is a brightly-lit narrative mostly set at daytime. In this respect, it's an effective film noir in colour in the same way that Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat and John Dahl's neo-noirs were.

Nonetheless, two thematic elements work against the film's overall impact. First, the text makes too big a deal over Jonathan's closeted homosexuality; it's not nearly as shocking anymore as the film would like us to believe. Second, in post-WWII America, when The Reckless Moment was made, protection of one's family and kinship unity were consecrated values. These days, however, the nuclear family and traditional bourgeois values have lost their sanctity for most Americans.

Prod co: i5 Pictures. US dist: Fox Searchlight. Int'l dist: Fox Searchlight outside France (ARP) and Italy (Key Films). Exec prod: Robert H. Nathan. Prods: Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Scr: McGehee and Siegel, based on the novel, The Blank Wall, by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding. Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens. Prod des: Kelly McGehee. Ed: Lauren Zuckerman. Mus: Peter Nashel. Main cast: Tilda Swinton, Goran Visnjic, Jonathan Tucker, Raymond Barry, Josh Lucas.