Adrian Lyne makes his directorial comeback in this weird, barely erotic thriller about a wealthy couple whose sex games have possibly become too elaborate
As much of Hollywood’s current and immediate future output remains dedicated to comic book movies and Disney fare, the need for straightforward adult entertainment remains frustratingly unfulfilled. Hope blossomed anew at the announcement that Adrian Lyne, the king of classy erotic thrillers, was making a comeback with Deep Water, some two decades since the release of 2002’s Unfaithful. Everything that was revealed about the plot of Deep Water suggested that it was dipping from the same well as Unfaithful, in which infidelity in an otherwise stable marriage leads to raging jealousy, and ultimately murder. Upping the stakes is the fact that it stars hot couple for a second Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, who met on set and presumably exhibited that sizzling chemistry in front of the camera. Surely this would be a triumphant return to form for Lyne, and a much-needed respite from trying to keep up with what phase Marvel is in at the moment.
It gives me no pleasure to say that, as we near the end of the first quarter of 2022, Deep Water is so far one of the most disappointing movies of the year. To describe it as an “erotic thriller” would be generous: there’s not enough heat here to toast a marshmallow, and whatever thrills it has to offer are reserved for an absurd mountain bike vs. car chase during the last ten minutes. It even fails as a showcase for Affleck and de Armas’ supposed chemistry, which seems to have mysteriously disappeared every time Lyne called “action.”
Given the pulsing song that opens the film, the moody grayish-blue lighting, and the idle rich characters, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in for some sweaty, 90s-style trash. However, it becomes quickly apparent that Deep Water is actually a turgid domestic drama about two awful people who inexplicably choose to continue muddling through a loveless marriage together. At no point is there even the most rudimentary attempt to make the viewer care about these characters or what they put each other through. It’s half a movie, stretched out to a punishing nearly two hours long.
Ben Affleck is Vic Van Allen, a software developer so independently wealthy he’s retired before the age of fifty. Vic made his fortune by single-handedly creating the computer chip that operates military drones, a factoid that is mentioned with all the casualness of someone who invented the smokeless ashtray. Vic is unhappily married to Melinda (Ana de Armas), so dissatisfied in her life as a millionaire’s wife who also doesn’t need to work that she blatantly carries on affairs with men much younger than Vic, which their so-called friends treat as a subject of snickering gossip and passive-aggressive remarks.
Though Vic insists that his relationship with Melinda is fine, and he doesn’t think there’s anything untoward about her bringing other men to their friends’ parties and grinding up against them on the dance floor, in truth he’s unhappy with her behavior. He expresses his displeasure by staring at Melinda while clenching his jaw, and later, as a not-so-veiled threat, telling one of her lovers that he murdered another lover, the missing Martin McCrea. Vic passes it off as a joke, but once actual bodies start piling up, he begins to look a tad suspicious, not just to Melinda, but to a new friend (Tracy Letts, slumming it a bit), who also happens to be a true crime writer with a nose for smelling a rat from a mile away.
Deep Water is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1957 novel of the same name, published during a time when divorce was still considered a shameful failure, and something a person would put up with a lot (say, chronic infidelity) to avoid. Set in the present, it’s not clear why Vic remains in a situation where he’s repeatedly, publicly cuckolded by his mean, moody, probably alcoholic wife, who’s miserable except for when she’s humiliating him. There’s no mention of a prenuptial agreement, or even the barest suggestion that they still have some affection for each other. It’s a relationship powered entirely on hatred, in which the only thing holding them together is a small child whom Melinda doesn’t seem to like very much. If anything, Vic and Melinda’s marriage feels like some weird endurance challenge, like eating a plate full of increasingly spicy hot wings – whoever cries “uncle” and gives up first loses.
If Vic is a cipher, whose motivations and desires are muddled at best, then Melinda is even more thinly drawn. She doesn’t have any internal life, nor is she depicted as having any hobbies or interests besides picking up young studs to attend to her endless need for attention. It seems like some of her antics are just to get an emotional rise out of the sleepwalking Vic. Or perhaps she’s turned on by Vic’s simmering anger, or even by the idea that he’s so insanely jealous of her faithlessness that he might be driven to kill. Could this even be some weird sex game between the two of them? These are all tantalizing ideas that sadly go undeveloped, in favor of interminable scenes of the couple arguing, as Vic handsomely scowls, and Melinda switches between two modes, “saucy minx” and “angry ball buster.”
To describe it as an “erotic thriller” would be generous: there’s not enough heat here to toast a marshmallow.
To be fair, no one goes into an erotic thriller expecting high art, or reasonable characters who do sensible things. However, one should go into an erotic thriller expecting some decent sex scenes, but Deep Water doesn’t deliver there either. It’s surprisingly restrained, with most of the “action” taking place in brief, tastefully framed below the camera shots, and very little nudity. It could have been titillating and campy, but Lyne, along with screenwriters Zach Helm and Sam Levinson (who, as the creator of Euphoria, should know luridness) inexplicably chose dreary and boring. When compared to the legendarily scorching scenes in Lyne’s Fatal Attraction and the previously mentioned Unfaithful, it’s a letdown, and perhaps proof that mainstream movies really don’t do sexy anymore.
On the plus side, it looks nice. In his prime Lyne had a knack for depicting stifling upper class mundanity as a fascinating, contradictory backdrop for animalistic coupling, which makes it all the more glaring that there’s no animalistic coupling to be found here. de Armas does the best she can, stuck playing a one-note character who has no redeeming qualities other than being attractive and willing to give a road handy. While Affleck mostly looks stiff and embarrassed, he nicely loosens up during his scenes with Grace Jenkins, the young actress playing his daughter. His relationship with de Armas burned bright but all too briefly, ending between one of the handful of times Deep Water’s theatrical release was postponed, before just being sent to streaming with little fanfare. Both actors are talented and likable, and I sincerely hope they enjoyed their time together making this film. Regrettably, it does not show on screen.
Deep Water premieres on Hulu (Amazon Prime internationally) March 18th.