Dir: Adrian Lyne. Starring: Ben Affleck, Ana de Armas, Tracy Letts, Lil Rel Howery, Jacob Elordi, Dash Mihok, Finn Wittrock. 15, 115 minutes.
Celebrity couples possess a certain knack for portraying marriages in decline. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in by the sea. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The more rich and beautiful the pair, the more rotten the love they can portray on screen. I couldn’t possibly speculate on why: I’m a film critic, after all, not a psychotherapist. But whatever catharsis is to be found in the ritualistic enactment of one’s worst impulses, it’s in the very foundations of Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas’s performances in the erotic (or not so erotic) thriller deep water.
Their off-screen relationship, kindled during production and snuffed out after one of the film’s many Covid-related delays, now survives entirely in subtext. It’s the coiled-up tension that already vibrated through the passages of deep water‘s source material, Patricia Highsmith’s compelling (and again, not so erotic) 1957 novel of the same name – a story, primarily, about control, where an adulterous wife (Armas’s Melinda) is faced with the creeping possibility that her husband (Affleck’s Vic) is behind her last lover’s disappearance.
Affleck and Armas have delivered us a very ugly marriage indeed. Armas is the stand-out of the pair – her eyes flecked with provocation, a spider’s trap laid out with the sweetest of venom. Affleck, at times, is so weary that he acts a little zombified. But it works. What’s frightening about Vic is always how casually he talks, no matter how dark the subject or if his fingers are wrapped around a power drill. When Melinda and Vic act out love, it’s hollow and mechanical, with phrases like “I think you look beautiful in the dress you have on” stumbling out like they’re in a foreign tongue. When they insult each other, they take little nips at each other’s pride. She yells at him while she’s brushing her teeth, and the little flecks of toothpaste splatter onto his shirt like ejaculate. When in a mood, Vic retreats to his shed to fuss over his large collection of snails. He lets the mating creatures intertwine on his hand from him, leaving his skin slick with slime.
None of this sounds particularly erotic. Nor should it – despite how it’s been sold, deep water is stubbornly and knowingly unsexy, though it may seem against the very nature of its director, Adrian Lyne. This is his first film by him since 2002’s unfaithfulwhich followed his previous erotic thrillers Indecent Proposal (1993) and Fatal Attraction (1987). It’s been somewhat unwisely framed, then, as the return of the genre, here to save us all from the sexless drought of modern Hollywood.
But Lyne never anointed himself as the leader of any crusade, however noble. And his tone here is considered, if unexpected – as if the simmering passions of Fatal Attraction and unfaithful had been left out in the hot sun to curdle. The sex scenes, a messy concoction of fumbled handjobs and feeble ass-grabbing, should be this harried because they are performed entirely without love.
deep water‘s script, overseen by Zach Helm and euphoria‘s Sam Levinson, check out Highsmith’s final act. Male rage – the kind that flared up at the end of Fatal Attraction – is tampered down and replaced by a more even handed power balance. It suits Lyne’s aims, allowing deep water to become a chess game with pawns made out of Melinda’s lovers, all eager young men with jawlines for days (played by Brendan C Miller, Jacob Elordi, and Finn Wittrock). Melinda wants Vic to cheat. The competition enlivens her. Vic seems to view marriage as something akin to joint prison time. He thinks a little too much about his snails from him, too. If that sounds silly – well, yes, deep water never takes itself all that seriously.
Lyne can laugh at these people because he holds little respect for them, and there’s a general sense of revulsion directed here towards the rich and reckless. His camera navigates queasily through the film like he’s capturing a natural disaster in action. deep water is as erotic a thriller as you can get in a place so barren of love.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.