The return of a master of the genre, they said. Maybe the erotic thriller isn’t dead after all, they said. Never mind that the release of the Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas thriller Deep Water — director Adrian Lyne’s first movie since Unfaithful 20 years ago — was repeatedly delayed. This wasn’t necessarily a bad omen, the reality of pandemic-era moviegoing being what it is. Even the fact of the movie’s same-day release in theaters and on Hulu feels appropriate.
Deep Water doesn’t pan out. It doesn’t add up. Not in a fun way: in an unsatisfying way. The ingredients are largely there, but by even the standards of a genre that no one insists should make complete sense, the movie doesn’t really make sense. This is not to sound ungrateful for the accidental marks the movie’s got in its favor. I laughed more than I was supposed to, which has to count for something. Affleck smile-grimacing his way through an everyday rich guy/closet-psycho routine for two hours also counts for… something. De Armas, playing a maybe-unsuspecting fatale who sets a near-platoon of tall, handsome, bolts-for-brains men on the path to their senseless deaths, also counts for quite a bit.
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Deep Water was adapted by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson (Euphoria) from the under-read 1957 novel by Patricia Highsmith, the master behind Mr. Ripley. In the novel, at least, Vic (played onscreen by Affleck) and Melinda Van Allen (de Armas) test the electric fence of their relationship by agreeing to an open marriage. The movie’s first intervention is to insert more of a question mark into this basic framework. It’s not a question of whether Vic knows that his wife is sleeping with other men — everyone in their small, sultry town knows that much. Rather, it’s an issue of whether he actually agreed to any of this. There’s the fact that the charmless but likable-enough Vic doesn’t seem to have affairs of his own, only hobbies (for example, a garage full of well-fed snails; this is not a joke). A sprig of potential self-delusion, meanwhile, initially proves suspenseful. Good friends pull Vic aside with their “Do you think she…?” concern-trolling, fully knowing the answer, and Vic meets their caring inquiries with thumbs-up, all’s good, nothing-to-see-here reassurances.
Is he embarrassed of their open marriage, or is he that much of a nincompoop that he doesn’t know what’s up? Well, Melinda’s boyfriends keep disappearing; jump to your own conclusions. Vic is smart — that’s one of Deep Water’s more amusing inner tangles. He’s smart enough to have developed the tech that put the predator in “predator drone” — smart enough to retire early, rich-guy style. And self-assured enough to make Melinda feel inane, extraneous, unintelligent. When he says he’s attracted to women with brains, she takes it personally. When Melinda displays a keen taste for charismatic himbos, he takes it personally.