Adrian Lyne is a moralizer at heart. This may seem like a counterproductive quality for a filmmaker best known for his contributions to the erotic thriller boom of the ’80s and the ’90s, but for Lyne, the shame is inextricable from the sizzle. In 1987’s Fatal Attraction, Michael Douglas nails Glenn Close up against a kitchen counter while his wife and kid are out of town, being, as she puts it, “a naughty boy” who then gets punished when Close’s character turns out to be an obsessive stalker. In 1993’s Indecent Proposal, Demi Moore sleeps with a wealthy Robert Redford in exchange for money that she and Woody Harrelson desperately need, a mutually agreed-on dalliance that nevertheless almost breaks apart the couple’s previously passionate marriage. And in 2002’s Unfaithful, which for a long time looked like it might be Lyne’s last film, Diane Lane enlivens her suburban existence by having an affair with a dreamy Olivier Martinez, only for her doting husband, played by Richard Gere, to find out and kill the guy in a burst of rage. In Lyne’s movies, the sanctity of the home is constantly being assailed by the allure of sordid, frantic, awesome-looking nonmarital sex.
Deep Water, a half-sultry, half-stultifying adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel, is Lyne’s first movie in two decades, and it initially looks like another variation on this theme. Its marrieds, Vic (Ben Affleck) and Melinda (Ana de Armas), reside in an elegant New Orleans house with their daughter, Trixie (Grace Jenkins), and appear to lead lives of monied leisure. Their circle includes couples played by Lil Rel Howery, Devyn Tyler, Dash Mihok, Jade Fernandez, Tracy Letts, and Kristen Connolly, and they all own equally fabulous places and throw shindigs that involve live music and bartenders. For fun, Vic raises snails, a tendency borrowed from Highsmith herself, and rides his mountain bike out of the city. Melinda’s hobbies, on the other hand, involve being the life of the party and having affairs with men she insists on bringing to the social events she and Vic are always going to. Her latest conquest, when the movie opens, is a blissful idiot named Joel (Brendan C. Miller) who makes the mistake of assuming that Melinda and Vic have an understanding.
We’re tempted to believe the same thing, given Melinda’s openness with what she’s doing and the way that she meets Vic’s gaze through a window as he watches her kiss her lover. But when Joel and Vic have a moment alone, Vic lobs an idle threat his way, implying that he murdered the last man Melinda had a fling with. He didn’t, or at least he probably didn’t, but it’s obvious that he’s not as content with the situation as he claims to be to concerned friends. What’s less evident about Vic and Melinda’s relationship is how much he’s turned on by the public cuckolding. Deep Water, which was written by Zach Helm (of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium) and Euphoria Svengali Sam Levinson, never creates any sense of internal coherence in its toxic main pair.
The movie, whose planned theatrical release presumably became a casualty of COVID and the Disney–Fox merger, has become an artifact of the very public and since concluded real-life romance between its leads, who share a spark onscreen in the warmth-free way two rocks struck together might. Neither is served especially well by the roles assigned to them, but they’re inarguably interesting together. Affleck, cast in a part that feels written for someone reedier and nerdier, summons his dead-eyed Gone Girl affect to play the stolid Vic as someone who isn’t really seen by anyone else in his life except his wife. De Armas, with her calculating eyes and bright smile, is incandescent, even when the character she’s playing seems to reinvent herself every other scene based on what will throw Vic most off-balance.
Sometimes Melinda seems to really want out of her marriage and out of motherhood, two commitments that, she suggests, were Vic’s idea. Other times, she and Vic seem to have settled into a routine that, however poisonous, seems to work for them. “If you were married to anyone else, you’d be so fucking bored you’d kill yourself,” Melinda taunts after coming home late and drunk, and it’s possible she’s right, though neither apparently has any interest in actually talking out the dynamics of their power games or making them consensual. Their status as a couple is instead measured out in the scenes of their car rides home. When things are good, Melinda retrieves a half-eaten apple from Trixie’s lunch and shares it with Vic as he drives in a gesture of practiced intimacy. When things get worse, right around the time Vic actually does kill one of Melinda’s lovers — a pianist played by Jacob Elordi — they don’t even share a frame, Melinda curling up miserably against the window.
Deep Water is billed as a thriller, but it builds up little urgency because its stakes are never clear. Melinda isn’t worried that Vic will kill her, even when she comes to believe he’s killed on her behalf. And Vic isn’t especially careful to hide his body count. The ending, which differs from that of the book, feels almost like a joke about Lyne’s social conservatism except that it’s played straight. For all its sloppiness, though, Deep Water offers the rare-these-days experience of watching a movie that feels decidedly grown-up. It may be set in a subtropical city, but there’s a coolness to its look, to the slightly green-tinged cinematography and the unwilted crispness of its characters’ appearances, that adds a sense of distance. When Vic and Melinda get ready to go to that first party, Melinda allows Vic to pick the shoes she’s going to wear and to kneel and put them on her feet. Then they disappear into the night in a flurry of perfume and promises to the babysitter, off to the unfathomable land of adults, a place so vividly realized that you can almost believe the messiness of the film’s writing passes for psychological complexity.
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