Review: ‘Deep Water,’ an erotic thriller with Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, runs hot and cold
Ben Affleck caresses a snail beautifully in “Deep Water.” As Vic Van Allen, the rich, brooding, slug-collecting antihero of this languid erotic thriller, he studies the little creatures as they slither around in his grasp and invites bewildered onlookers to share his fascination. “A snail will crawl up a 12-foot wall to find its mate,” he says admiringly, as if he were recognizing a kindred romantic. Sadly, Vic doesn’t go on to diagram their unique mating habits, which involve two sets of genitalia (most land slugs are hermaphrodites) and the shooting of a special “love dart” from one snail’s body into another. That sounds complicated and painful, if also mercifully devoid of emotional baggage. All in all, Vic prefers the company of snails to that of other humans — an attitude he surely shares with his late creator and fellow gastropod enthusiast, Patricia Highsmith.
A present-day adaptation of a 1957 Highsmith novel isn’t necessarily what you’d expect from Adrian Lyne, the 81-year-old English director who made his reputation with the adulterous thrills of “Fatal Attraction,” “Indecent Proposal” and “Unfaithful.” But while “Deep Water,” his first new feature in 20 years, looks at first like one of his patented hand-wringing, libido-tickling soap operas, it also has a chilled Highsmithian misanthropy that cuts differently than his previous work. If Lyne’s earlier potboilers asked (or glossed over) the question of why a husband or wife would stray from a happy marriage, “Deep Water” playfully ponders what might hold an unhappy one together: a child, sure, but also an open arrangement of a sort that was less common in Highsmith’s era than the present one, in which this updated movie takes place.
But even if they inhabit a more progressive-minded moment, Vic and his wife, Melinda (Ana de Armas), can’t help but raise eyebrows in their inner circle. An inveterate flirt, Melinda pushes the terms of their agreement to the limits: She spends her days chasing handsome young men around their leafy New Orleans suburb, sometimes inviting them over to the house for dinner. Vic, an early retiree, spends most of his time raising their sweet young daughter (Grace Jenkins), riding his mountain bike, tending his snails and watching Melinda’s revolving door of lovers with ever-darkening shades of contempt.
Part of the pleasure of “Deep Water” comes from watching him vent his scorn and undermine his rivals without losing his cool. Affleck, who once upon a time might’ve played one of those rivals, embraces the role of the quietly seething cuckold. Vic plays cruel mind games with one dreamy dullard (Brendan Miller), at one point calmly announcing that he killed one of Melinda’s previous lovers. (Is he lying? In that moment, at least, you’re not entirely sure.) He gets even crueler with a piano teacher (Jacob Elordi) whom he suspects of tickling more than Melinda’s ivories. At a certain point, we learn how Vic earned his millions, and we’re meant to both cackle and shudder: Like more than a few tech bros enjoying an early retirement, he doesn’t mind having a few corpses on his conscience.
There’s more to the story: a startling rumor, a couple of parties, a nosy neighbor (a typically sharp Tracy Letts), a few unfortunate “accidents” and a swimming pool that glows as ominously as the one in “La Piscine,” Jacques Deray’s 1969 classic of sex, deceit and murder. (Speaking of French thrillers: Highsmith’s novel was previously adapted into the 1981 film “Eaux Profondes,” starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert. A German TV adaptation, “Tiefe Wasser,” followed in 1983.) But while Lyne is a self-professed Francophile, the movies he seems to be referencing most blatantly here are his own. As shot by Eigil Bryld, this “Deep Water” is almost reassuringly shallow, a catalog of Architectural Digest furnishings and tasteful female nudity (wayward wife, meet antique bathtub). The slick sheen that has long clung to Lyne’s images, since his days as a director of TV commercials, hasn’t abandoned him over the last two decades.
Nor has he lost the interplay of seriousness and silliness — and the genial refusal to distinguish between the two — that has long animated his work. From time to time, the movie raises the intriguing possibility that the Van Allens’ marital dilemma — her unbridled lust, his thinly concealed jealousy — might be part of some kinky extended role play, as if Vic and Melinda were acting out their own (R-rated) cuckold-porn fantasy. Whatever sexual mind games are taking place, they get an extra frisson from the casting of Affleck and De Armas, who famously began dating midproduction in 2019 but broke things off in early 2021. More than a year later, the movie, which was made for theaters but delayed several times by the COVID-19 pandemic, is being dumped on Hulu with a conspicuous lack of fanfare.
It’s possible, while streaming “Deep Water,” to feel a stab of nostalgia for the big-screen heyday of the Hollywood erotic thriller, a genre to which Lyne and several others — the Lawrence Kasdan of “Body Heat” and the Paul Verhoeven of “Basic Instinct” among them — made indelibly sweaty contributions in the ’80s and ’90s. But the resemblance between Lyne’s latest and those earlier lurid entertainments turns out to be superficial at best. Affleck and De Armas don’t evince much in the way of onscreen chemistry, which I mean less as a dis to their now-defunct relationship than a compliment to their grasp of this particular assignment. Vic and Melinda’s fleeting sexual encounters — a little discreet fondling here, some behind-the-wheel fellatio there — are tinged with sadness and even hostility. Intimacy is achieved only in fits of rage.
There’s a lot of psychosexual layering to peel back here, in other words, or there would be if Lyne were more fully in control of his material. Slithering along as deliberately as one of Vic’s snails, “Deep Water” runs hot and cold; it’s sometimes a self-aware hoot and sometimes a disjointed drag. Even by the standards of comic relief, Vic and Melinda’s friends (played by actors including Dash Mihok and Lil Rel Howery) always seem to be wandering in from a more laid-back, more entertaining movie. Not-insignificant chunks of narrative seem to have gone missing, especially as the story barrels toward its startlingly abrupt finish. De Armas, the movie’s liveliest presence, is also perhaps the most ill-served by all this editing-room triage; she seems to be acting in fragments, as if she’d been directed to variously flirt, dance, drink, scream and slink around in black cocktail attire without pulling the pieces together.
Affleck fares better; viral gossip may have reduced him to a punchline, but time and circumstance have conspired to make him a more interesting actor than he often gets credit for being. Much as he showed in “Gone Girl,” another gleefully amoral potboiler about a loveless marriage, he excels at playing the emasculated dreamboat, the golden boy gone to seed. The resemblance to that earlier movie is instructive. Notably and refreshingly, Lyne largely seems to have purged himself of the moralistic streak that’s often marred his work; for the first time in a long time, he’s enjoying his characters’ awfulness rather than damning them for it. He doesn’t want to punish them. He just wants to hold them up to the light and watch them wriggle.
Rated: R, for sexual content, nudity, language and some violence
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: Available March 18 on Hulu
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