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. Erotic thrillers in their heyday were, after all, routine beneficiaries of the direct-to-video pipeline; the theatrical successes of iconic high-grossers, like Basic Instinct and Lyne’s own Fatal Attraction, obscure this fact. If any genre should be thriving in the Netflix era, it’s the genre that a respectable adult might prefer to watch at home to mitigate the guilt of such guilty pleasures. The genre that lulls us into feeling like we’re cheating on “better” movies with so-called trash — and makes the infidelity forgivable. There are no ticket stubs in hell, only algorithms that promise not to leak our watch histories to the devil (and then do it anyway).
So much for all of that. 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. And Deep Water’s motivating bit of nonsense — a premise that insists we suspend our disbelief further out into the stratosphere with each passing scene — is almost riveting, for a little while, if only for its instability. The movie’s got just enough ambiguity to make you wonder if it knows what it’s doing. Then the last dreg of good will dies. And you’ve still got an hour-plus of movie left.
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.
What’s Deep Water really about? The erotic thriller as practiced by Lyne has always been as much about the premise of its characters’ lives — about the fact that money can’t secure happiness or marital bliss, and the fact that domestication has a way of breeding boredom, and the fact that “crazy bitch,” as personality type, can apply to men and women both — as about eroticism. So it is with Deep Water, or would be, if the movie could figure out where it wants to apply its pressure. The ingredients are all here. Melinda is the younger half of a couple with an age gap, a fact that the movie nudges into our awareness without quite figuring out how to do more than nudge. It saddles Melinda with an oddly retrograde, vacuum-sealed cache of real but under-examined needs. This is a woman who seems to regret that her husband’s already made it: His hunger, his need, the things that make a man a man, have apparently fizzled out. Whereas Melinda is left feeling bereft of the essentials (s-e-x). “He doesn’t want to control me like a normal man,” she complains to one of her boyfriends. What’s a girl got to do to get her bodice ripped around here?
At its heights, Deep Water draws delight from the surprising irony of some of Melinda’s choices — for example, her taste for men played by the likes of Finn Whitrock and Jacob Elordi. That’s shade. It’s also a clear gender reversal: Isn’t it men who usually step out with younger women? Good for Melinda. Could this even be meant to rile up Vic — you know, as a game? The most daring, interesting thing about this movie is its reliance on foreplay as its own, worthwhile sexual endeavor — as in the energetic bouts of fingering that frequently pop up after the Van Allens fight. It lends itself to the impression that jealousy is something the Van Allens are toying with. She steps out (flagrantly); he finds out (as if he was meant to); she brings men home; they disappear. Vic and Melinda wouldn’t be the first couple to notice that jealousy has potent erotic value, just as they wouldn’t be the first to learn firsthand how easily it can lend itself to intimate violence. If they didn’t know that, we wouldn’t be here: the genre wouldn’t exist. The problem is that by the end of Deep Water, it’s still not entirely clear why we’re here. The movie has the makings of a devious erotic game, of a dirty pas-de-deux that spills out of the Van Allens’ marital bed and into a friend’s pool, a nearby quarry, and the woods. But the movie doesn’t quite have the backbone it’d need, or even the sense of fun, to clarify the extent to which this is a game that both players know they’re playing. (The novel is less ambiguous on this subject.)
Lyne has proven himself capable of finding a satisfying psychological balance between sense (which gives characters plausibility) and senselessness (which gives great trash its bite). Everything we didn’t explicitly know about Glenn Close’s notoriously crazy-sexy Alex Forrest, in Fatal Attraction, was only more effective for misleading us in the right ways, with the pendulum swinging from thinking she’s off her rocker to wondering “Can you blame her?” and back again. The violence was senseless, but the feelings at their root made a certain chaotic sense, if for no other reason than because Close was given the leeway of her own imagination.
De Armas’s Melinda — who drinks too much for her husband’s taste, and is more intriguing for all her mess — isn’t nearly as well-served. A better movie would be far more interested in Melinda than this movie is: in her vacillating attitudes and teasing admonishments and her brazenness; in the fact that her husband, who’s definitely a murderer (not a spoiler), is far closer to their young daughter Trixie (Grace Jenkins) than she is. De Armas succeeds at giving us a Melinda who fills us with questions. But where Vic feels elaborated upon (if consistent), Melinda is a character whose psychology feels moth-eaten and patchy. It reeks of the sense that some other, earlier version of the movie was a little more complete.
Instead, Lyne’s foreplay becomes bore-play. The Chekhov’s guns are polished and loaded and laid out, ready to fire any minute now, only for someone — the studio? the director? — to keep switching the safeties on. Psychological gaps pile up in the margins, untested. There’s enough there for you to make sense of the tantalizing thriller Deep Waters seemingly strives to be, and enough to make you wonder why what’s missing has — like Melinda’s boyfriends — gone M.I.A.
It’s satisfying, still, to see de Armas make something appealing and properly mystifying of this character, underwritten as she is. And it’s fun to go along with the movie and buy into the idea that Vic’s public persona somehow pays off, however suspicious Affleck naturally makes us feel toward this guy. The Van Allens’ friends and neighbors (populated by actors like Tracy Letts, Kristen Connolly, Lil Rel Howery and others) are, for the most part, on Vic’s side in all of this, with one glaring exception. The mere idea of other characters falling for Affleck’s “Nothing to see here, folks! Normal guy! Normal dad!” simulation, finding sincerity in the truly discomfiting lilt in his voice and his half-cocked smile, is hilarious. It should encourage and sustain the right kind of incredulous suspense, which is its own teasing pleasure. Instead, Deep Water loses the thread — and abandons the viewer with it.