After a 20 year hiatus, Adrian Lyne returns to the director’s chair with Deep Water, a glossy drama starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas that fits in nicely with his cache of movies about marital discord such as Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal and Unfaithful. It’s also a throwback to adult thrillers from the 80s and 90s, which Lyne turned into high art.
As a filmmaker endlessly fascinated by carnality, Lyne never panders to moralistic refinements. Some might consider this passe, or even offensive, especially within the current landscape, where superheroes reign and sexual politics is left to documentaries, not cinema. But if you look beyond the director’s softly lit portraits of couples gone astray and his signature steamy sex scenes, you’ll find a filmmaker who’s more curious and investigative than poised or smug. From 9 ½ Weeks to Jacob’s Ladder, challenging scenarios are deconstructed with a guileless intrigue. Judging from his latest offering, Lyne is not only baffled by the zeitgeist of moral propriety, he pokes at it like a child would a hornet’s nest, still inquisitive but also rebellious. Although this movie could’ve used more depth of character and fewer farfetched scenarios, it remains undeniably exciting.
Affleck and Armas play Vic and Melinda Van Allen, a prosperous, attractive couple who have an adorable daughter, a raucous social life, and a beautiful home. The wrinkle in this picture-perfect marriage is that Melinda indulges in extramarital affairs. What’s more disturbing is how she flaunts these escapades in front of her husband who simply watches her with a deadened stare. Although Vic’s friends plead with him to handle the situation and end this humiliation, he shrugs it off with a steely reserve. The screenplay by Zach Helm and Euphoria’s Sam Levinson never specifically tells us if she’s sleeping with these men or merely flirting with them. Since we view everything through Vic’s eyes, it remains a mystery.
Although Vic seems relatively cool with Melinda’s polyamorous antics, he represses a world of vitriol and jealousy which ultimately results in psychopathic behavior. When one of Melinda’s former conquests is found dead, possibly murdered, Vic tells some of her would-be suitors that he’s the one who killed him. Thrown by this confession, they run for the hills. This doesn’t stop Melinda from “making new friends” however.
The screenplay keeps us at a distance and we continually wonder if Vic is actually responsible for this man’s death, or if he’s merely posturing. However, the real mystery lies in their marriage. Does Vic derive a secret, masochistic thrill from their twisted arrangement? It doesn’t seem like it. If anything, Vic is a broken man who’s only at peace when he tends to pet snails in his makeshift lab. Meanwhile, Melinda continues to get pleasure from pushing her husband’s patience to its limit. It’s a twisted game of perversion and sadism, which suits their unconventional relationship… until it gets out of control.
Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, Deep Water shares some tropes with her other novels like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Highsmith is known for toying with her audience by presenting complex, inscrutable protagonists who behave in unexpected ways so they can manipulate situations. They’re opportunists more than victims. Vic and Melinda’s marriage highlights this game of creating scenarios so each can derive a strange pleasure from it. And just when you think you know who the winner and loser is, the dynamic switches and the shoe is suddenly on the other foot.
Mixed in the story are a variety of characters, such as their novelist friend, played by Tracy Letts, who suspects Vic of committing murder. Vic evades suspicion by maintaining a mask of calmness and pragmatism, although he’s boiling inside. In this regard, the acting is paramount in conveying this combination of turmoil and duplicity. Ben Affleck is on a roll after some gritty performances in The Way Back, The Last Duel and the middling, The Tender Bar. This is one of his most challenging characters yet. Much like his role in Gone Girl, he maintains a passive exterior while emoting from a secret world inside. It’s a balancing act which might appear bland from a distance but on closer inspection is intricately woven. Armas gives a brave, impassioned turn as Melinda, but she can only do so much with such a severely underwritten role. At times, she comes off like a ghoul instead of a complex person who might have unresolved reasons for her cruelty. Still, both actors have a fiery onscreen chemistry, which continued offscreen with a short-lived romance after they wrapped the movie.
Even though there are moments throughout the film that defy believability, Deep Water is an enticing return for Lyne. Some will have trouble watching a film that doesn’t feature empathetic or likable characters, but Lyne and Highsmith aren’t the kind of artists who are too interested in right or wrong. They’re more concerned with motivation and loss of identity. And after watching these lovers psychologically brutalize each other, hungrily subsisting on the pain, they make us ponder if we really know anyone, even those we claim to love.