It's hard to remember a time when Tilda Swinton wasn't spicing up our lives with her charmingly bonkers photoshoots and eclectic work in blockbusters and indies alike, which continues strong with Only Lovers Left Alive (out this Friday). In our new feature Deep Cuts, we look at less-remembered gems from an actor's career, beginning this week with The Deep End (currently streaming on Netflix), which put Tilda Swinton on the map in Hollywood and almost earned her an Oscar nomination back in 2001.
The film garnered some significant buzz at the time after making a splash at Sundance, and Swinton (who was 40 years old when it was released) was vaulted from art-film doyenne to established character actress. Before this, she was best known for her work with iconoclastic British director Derek Jarman (in films like Edward II and Wittgenstein) and her magnificent, but under-seen, lead role in the Virginia Woolf adaptation Orlando. Swinton is a remarkable actress, but until The Deep End, she seemed uninterested in more mainstream work, perhaps because her unique, androgynous style would be hard to pigeonhole in Hollywood. Her most-seen film before hitting it big was probably Danny Boyle's The Beach, as the nutty leader of the island community, but that film was best known as Leo DiCaprio's big flop follow-up to Titanic.
The Deep End has an oddly similar vibe and trajectory to Todd Field's In the Bedroom, which came out the same year and also debuted at Sundance, riding strong reviews and a vigorous Miramax campaign to five Oscar nominations and $36 million domestic. Like The Deep End, it's also inspired by a book and sees a well-to-do family in a small seaside town reduced to desperate measures by a kid's unfortunate choice for a lover. In the Bedroom went bigger and darker than The Deep End, though, with Sissy Spacek smashing plates and Tom Wilkinson resorting to murder. But The Deep End might be the better film. It's certainly the more restrained one, never truly letting protagonist Margaret (Swinton) break down or lose her mind even as the vice of unfortunate circumstance tightens around her.
The film drops us at the end of a doomed relationship between Margaret's son Beau (a young Jonathan Tucker) and older club owner Darby (Josh Lucas, who is extremely creepy in his brief time onscreen and reminds us he should have stayed a character actor). A couple of fights, one verbal, one physical, and a poorly-built dock lead indirectly to Darby's death, though no one is really at fault. But Margaret discovers the body and assumes the worst, moving it further into the lake he drowned in. At that point, an extorter called Alek (Goran Visnjic) shows up with a videotape of Beau and Darby together and says he'll implicate her son in Darby's death if she doesn't pay him $50,000.
With remarkable subtlety, we follow Margaret as she tries to scrape together the funds and slowly works on Alek's sympathies until he swings around to her side. By the end of the film, Margaret has what she wants at no great cost to herself, like the greatest of femme fatales, but she's curled up on her bed, seemingly a broken-down shell as a result. What's so incredible about Swinton's performance is it never resorts to theatrics, but it informs every faintly ludicrous plot twist that happens in the movie just the same. When she's frustrated and pleading for sympathy, she mostly gets it, and she's such a natural that you can barely tell if she's trying to turn Alek into an ally or just stumbling into good fortune after making the foolish decision to move Darby's body.
The film came out in August of 2001, a little early for serious Oscar buzz, but the mid-year bow gave it enough time to collect a healthy take for such a tiny indie ($8.6 million, maxing out at 421 theaters) and keep Swinton in the conversation for awards attention. Visnjic is the unsung hero of the movie, doing his typically quiet, strangely soulful shtick (every performance he gives is entirely behind his handsome eyes), but Swinton is certainly on another level, although she lacks the huge, over the top Oscar clip that might have vaulted her over Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones' Diary (likely the fifth nominee that year). She did collect Golden Globe and Indie Spirit nominations, won the Boston Society of Film Critics Award, and came third at the New York Film Critics' Circle.
It also marks the fulcrum point in Swinton's acting career, after which she moved away from the UK art film scene and started accepting more Hollywood roles, although she did turn in fine work in Scottish indie Young Adam in 2003 (even that had a comparatively star-studded cast compared to her '90s projects). She pops up in Vanilla Sky, Adaptation, The Statement, and most notably Constantine (where her celebrated androgyny is used to great effect as the archangel Gabriel) before finally finding the kind of big-budget role that suited her inimitable persona: the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
She was the most memorable part of that now-forgotten blockbuster, but did not appear in another major film until 2007's Michael Clayton, for which she won one of the most improbable and deserved Academy Awards of recent memory. Her embattled, desperate executive in that thriller is a vague cousin of her panicked work in The Deep End, but dialed up to real thriller extremes (she ironically exacts her revenge on Tom Wilkinson, star of In the Bedroom, in that movie).
Since then, Swinton has been a much more consistent presence, showing up in bitty character roles (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Burn After Reading, The Grand Budapest Hotel) and turning in fantastic work as the star of darker indie projects like Julia, I Am Love and We Need to Talk About Kevin. With The Deep End, she announced herself as a very specific, but very valuable kind of leading lady, and though she's turned in even more memorable work since then, it doesn't deserve to be forgotten.