Why Does Melinda Burn the ID at the End of Deep Water?

Photo: Claire Folger/ Courtesy of 20th Century Studio

Spoilers follow for the plot of Deep Water.

Sex is integral to Patricia Highsmith’s Deep Water — or, at least, the suggestion of it. Published in 1957, the book traffics in whispers and insinuations: A locked door at a bustling costume party. Bodies that suddenly bolt upright when another figure enters the room. In director Adrian Lyne’s new filmed adaptation, though, the sex is explicit.

Here, upper-class stiff Vic Van Allen (Ben Affleck) and his free-spirit wife, Melinda (Ana de Armas), are not New England WASPS, as they were in Highsmith’s novel, but a couple living leisurely in New Orleans on the money Van Allen earned in the business of drone warfare. Both versions of Vic descend into murder when Melinda brings home one too many pretty, dull young men. But Lyne’s movie makes one alteration that steers Deep Water toward its most drastic change from the text: Vic and Melinda still have something resembling an active sex life. That choice transforms a poisonous tale about marital hatred into high-class cuckold porn, and the Van Allens from a tragically mismatched couple into co-conspirators who can’t help but take part in a kinky game.

Nothing clarifies that transformation like the ending of Lyne’s Deep Water, after Vic has broken under the emotional weight of Melinda’s multiple, brazen affairs and killed not one, but two of her lovers. He ties the corpse of his second victim, a hunky piano teacher named Tony Cameron (Finn Wittrock), to a heavy rock and submerges it in a creek out at a nearby forest preserve. This murder, like the first, seems to pass without incident, until Vic takes the family out to a picnic at the scene of the crime and spots the bloated corpse bobbing around. (The water was not deep enough, it seems.) Under the pretense of finding a scarf Melinda left behind, he returns alone the next day, with no real plan beyond poking his murder victim’s body with a stick and hoping for the best.

It’s right then, mid-poke, that Don Wilson (Tracy Letts), Vic and Melinda’s writer friend, peeks over a ridge and spies Vic idly jabbing Tony’s corpse. Vic realizes he’s caught, Don realizes he’s next, and the two lurch off into an outrageous chase scene.

Letts commits to the absurdity of the moment, cackling in breathless triumph as his character races down narrow, winding dirt roads in an SUV. “This is a book!” Don shouts into his phone at his wife before trying and failing to paw out a text message relaying what he’s witnessed. He’s blindsided when Vic comes crashing through the trees on his mountain bike, sending him screeching off the road and over a small cliff. (Letts, ever the professional, mugs for the camera all the way down.) A third man is dead, and Vic’s secret is safe. Or so we think until, back at home, a distraught Melinda discovers Tony’s wallet and ID stashed in Vic’s greenhouse, where he raises snails. (That’s a whole other story.)

If you can get past the Mac and Me goofiness of Don’s car flying off a creek bed and flipping upside down into the water, there is a sinister implication to what follows in the movie’s final moments. Fresh off his third and most ridiculous murder, a sweaty and huffing Vic bikes home, where he’s greeted by Melinda perched on the spiral staircase of their Creole-style home. She looks up at Vic with soft, wet, loving eyes and tells him, “I saw Tony,” referring to his victim’s stolen wallet. Cut to her alone, burning Tony’s ID, the dead man’s face melting in the flames. (It should be noted that the ending in Highsmith’s novel is just as abrupt.) As the credits of Lyne’s film roll — more on that in a moment — it’s clear where Melinda and Vic now stand in their relationship. They will stay together, bonded by the skeletons in their shared closet

Melinda’s complicity in that last shot casts some earlier, more ambiguous events in a different light, too, though. When Vic’s first victim, a guy named Charlie (Jacob Elordi) turns up dead in a pool, Melinda is horrified and tearfully accuses Vic of the murder in front of all their friends. So then why, upon discovering the wallet Vic saved as a trophy, didn’t she take it to the police and get her homicidal husband put away so she could continue her affairs with impunity? Is she afraid of Vic, despite knowing she’s “the thing he kills for”? Is true love never having to testify against your spouse in court? Or — most provocatively, and maybe most plausibly of all — has this all been an extended, high-stakes erotic role play?

Vic and Melinda’s relationship in Lyne’s film is combative, but not nearly to the extent it is in Highsmith’s novel. Onscreen, they exchange hurtful barbs when Melinda’s lovers come by the house for dinner, and she makes little effort to hide her philandering whenever they’re out at parties. Still, though Affleck’s Vic is hurt by his wife’s actions, he seems to respect her; at one point, he assures her that he thinks she’s an intelligent person. The film frames Melinda both as a free spirit and a troubled soul, someone who acts out her existential dissatisfaction by chasing fleeting pleasure whenever she can. And, at least in public, Vic puts up with it because he loves her.

But when it’s just the two of them, that tolerance gives way to a cuckolding relationship, with Melinda as the dominant partner and Vic as the submissive. Early on in the film, Melinda tells Vic to fetch her high-heeled shoes; he obediently gets on one knee and straps them to her feet, the camera gazing up at her as she smiles flirtatiously. A few scenes later, he rubs lotion on her naked body as she teases him about her affairs. The steamy patter continues when they later drive home from a party, culminating in Melinda leaning down to give Vic a blowjob while he drives. He pulls away, like the middle-aged stiff he is. But the couple’s erotic ritual — she brings up having sex with other men both when she’s angry at her husband and in intimate moments together — suggests they have an arrangement that goes beyond mere martyrdom.

Meanwhile, in Highsmith’s novel, Vic and Melinda seem to genuinely dislike each other, and there are no blowjobs or other signs of a sex life between them. Vic describes his wife as petulant, selfish, and a little dim, a spoiled child whose actions add up to little more than animalistic sensation seeking. And once Vic realizes that he won’t be able to get away with the two murders he has already committed, he strangles Melinda to death as well. It’s not a crime of passion; Vic observes Melinda’s many lovers and his own homicidal tendencies with the same sense of bemused attachment. His final killing is more about propriety with a sprinkling of why-the-hell-not, revenge for the emasculation Vic feels he has suffered under his sniping alcoholic wife. (The German TV-miniseries version of the story, 1983’s Tiefe Wasser, puts a moralistic spin on these same events: Melinda still dies at the end, but with the couples’ 6-year-old daughter, Trixie, innocently playing nearby.)

In Lyne’s movie, neither of them is punished. Melinda not only chooses to stay with Vic, but she also gazes at him with affection, knowing that he’s just killed a man. The film ends without revealing whether Melinda knew about Vic’s crimes all along, or if she made an impulsive decision to protect him after finding Tony’s ID. But either way, she’s willing to cover for him, hinting that these two may even have it in them act out this particular scenario again. How many dopey hunks must die to keep the flame alive in this marriage? It’s a chilling question — for about half a second.

Then, in perhaps the film’s most baffling twist of all, Lyne cuts from this very dark moment to footage of the young actress who plays Vic and Melinda’s precocious daughter singing along to the 1976 disco hit “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing.” Not just a few bars, either: The camera lingers for a full 90 seconds on this jaw-dropping pivot, and the song plays out as the credits roll.

Is this supposed to be an unsettling reminder of the evil that lurks under the placid surfaces of seemingly respectable open marriages? Or is it just a show of appreciation for child actress Grace Jenkins that would have been better saved for the cast party? The whiplash — and laughter — of the film’s final moments points to the latter.

Changing the ending of Deep Water from spousal murder to kinky collusion has been attempted before: 1981’s Eaux Profondes, starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert as Vic and “Melanie,” regards her infidelity with sophisticated, Continental indifference. It also changes the ending of the book so that the couple (mostly wordlessly) reconciles, concluding with a birthday party for Vic on the same cliff off which he recently threw Tony’s body. In that film, however, the object the couple spies floating in the sea is just a barrel that must have fallen off of a passing ship, which means no mountain-bike chase.

Thanks to an increased cultural awareness of open relationships, Lyne’s Deep Water has to work a little harder than the novel, or even the French and German movie versions, to make Melinda’s infidelity dangerous. In New Orleans in 2022, all Vic would have to tell his friends is that he and Melinda are “open” — and while they might not approve, they’d have a frame of reference for what was happening. Back when Patricia Highsmith wrote the original Deep Water, serial adultery was a privilege reserved for upper-class men, and flipping the gender roles was enough to make such an arrangement sinister. Now, wives bringing their lovers home to meet their husbands is simply responsible polyamory. With that in mind, adding murder to the couple’s sex games adds a sanctimonious element to the story: Beware sexy, restless women and their suspiciously permissive husbands, ye young and adventurous souls.

But even as a morality tale, Lyne’s Deep Water fails to make much of an impact, thanks to the broad narrative strokes of its modified ending. That won’t stop cuckolding enthusiasts from uploading clips from the film onto fetish sites, but you know what? As long as no one ends up floating face-down in a shallow body of water, let ’em.

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Why Does Melinda Burn the ID at the End of Deep Water?