Back It Up 

New films doing it the old way: The Deep End and The Others.

Only in a film climate as riddled with marketing-driven clunkers as this one could a film as simple, straightforward, and, well, old-fashioned as The Deep End be considered an "art" film. Hopefully the film's lack of "star-power," it's relatively miniscule marketing budget, and the attending media neglect that comes from such deficits won't scare blockbuster-weaned audiences away. Because, while The Deep End is far from a great film, it is a uniquely satisfying one.

One imagines that there must be a large film-going population out there dissatisfied with the current state of things: Most of the "mainstream" films are clearly product, commercials for themselves that lure large opening weekend audiences through promotion but don't deliver on the movie's storytelling promise. And, on the other hand, most critical darlings in recent years -- foreign films and those so-called indies -- are, by and large, films whose pleasures are either highly formal and stylistic or films infused with a postmodern or ironic edge. They just don't make 'em like they used to.

Except that The Deep End is that rare American film that does indeed play with the precision and realism of a Hollywood drama from the '40s or '50s. It's a subtle and honest connection of two Hollywood staples -- the woman's picture and the film noir -- transposed effortlessly to the present day: no nudges, no snickers, no knowing winks. It might well be a second-tier Fritz Lang.

The film is actually based on a '40s thriller, The Blank Wall, that was later adapted to the screen by Max Ophuls as The Reckless Moment. In the original, a protective mother disposes of the dead body of her teen daughter's older lover then fends off the threats of a blackmailer. Teen girls and older guys no longer so taboo, The Deep End makes it a teen son with an older male lover. The mother is Tilda Swinton (Orlando), whose finely calibrated performance is likely to be remembered come Oscar time. Swinton is realistic as a 40-something soccer mom managing three kids and a faltering father-in-law while her military husband is away at sea. She perfectly conveys the reason in every crazy action she takes, making each step seem like the most logical damage control of a mother protecting a son. One ingenious aspect of the film is that the son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker), is never aware of what his mother is up to, and Swinton dabs her loving mother role with dashes of resentment toward her son's combination of cluelessness and his status as the source of a spiraling crisis. The blackmailer is played by Goran Visnjic (of TV's ER) in a hunky-yet-sinister "dark stranger" turn that might have gone to Robert Mitchum or Robert Ryan once upon a time.

Written and directed by the team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel and shot by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who won the Best Cinematography award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, The Deep End is a gorgeous blend of blues and greens, making stellar use of its Lake Tahoe location. Like those great Hollywood genre movies of the "Golden Age," the film is artful in the classical style -- artful without ever drawing attention to its own artfulness, every frame devoted to telling a story.

-- Chris Herrington

At the beginning of The Others, Grace (Nicole Kidman) wakes up screaming, not bloody murder exactly but loud and hard. But, then again, Grace is mad. Everyone says so. Her daughter Anne and the maid, Mrs. Mills, have uttered those words. Even Grace herself has considered it.

And what's there not to be mad about? It's 1945, and Grace is stuck in a gigantic and gloomy mansion on a damp English isle. Her husband went off to war and never came back. Both of her young children, Anne and Nicholas, cannot be exposed to natural light, lest they be covered in burns and blisters. And so it goes. Grace holds 50 keys to 50 doors, all of which must be locked immediately upon passing through. The drapes, too, must be opened and shut in time with the children's movements.

But is it the strain of keeping up that leaves Grace reed-thin and sickly pale? Is it something simpler? Perhaps it's cheeky Anne, who taunts her fearful brother with stories of an invisible little boy named Victor who lives in the house and then won't back down when her mother tells her to take it back. Maybe it's that Mrs. Mills, kindly, sure, but maybe a bit too knowing and a bit too eager to hand Grace her migraine pills. Or could it be something more sinister? What are all those bumps and crashes that Grace hears overhead, and who is it who plays the piano when she knows full well that the music room was locked?

The Others is directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar, who, at 29, is being championed as the next hot young director (the upcoming Cameron Crowe/Tom Cruise film, Vanilla Sky, is an English-language remake of one of Amenábar's three films). Compared to those who've had that honor before -- Todd Solondz (Happiness), Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia), Darren Aronofsky (Requiem For a Dream) -- Amenábar isn't trying to break the mold. Instead, at least for The Others, he's charmingly old-school. A rattling doorknob and the clump-drag, clump-drag step in a foggy forest are the avenues for his chills. And if the film doesn't quite scare the wits out of its audience, the slow play of details is certainly agitating. Amenábar's chief skill appears to be the direction of Kidman. As Grace, Kidman comes off as cold, not driven by blood pumping through her heart but by sheer determination to get a grip -- on her kids, on her servants, on that something that makes her question all that she knows.

And then there is the ending -- a twist, to be sure, though not the knockdown sort. If anything, it makes the viewer review the film to work out if it all makes sense. Not a bad thing, really, thinking about a film after the credits have rolled.

-- Susan Ellis

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