In Adrian Lyne’s Deep Water, Ben Affleck has found a role that takes his memeified Sad Affleck persona to its final form. Playing an aging cuckold with the wonderfully cinematic name of Vic Van Allen, Affleck mopes around intensely throughout, wearing the same look of befuddled despair that he sported sitting next to Henry Cavill in that viral interview or in pap shots of him on the beach gazing out into the ocean. It’s a film that essentially asks, what if Sad Affleck got so sad… he could kill?
Vic is a retired and uber-wealthy Louisiana tech developer married to the much-younger and feistier Melinda (Ana de Armas), who makes no bones about the fact that she hates him. To avoid a messy divorce and maintain some semblance of a relationship for their precocious 6-year-old daughter, Trixie (Grace Jenkins), Vic allows Melinda to take as many lovers as she wants. Melinda happily obliges, flaunting her affairs in front of Vic and their concerned circle of friends, while generally acting like a petulant teenager in the process.
Initially, Vic’s attitude towards their arrangement is so nonchalant that it renders him almost catatonic, dumbly smiling his way through each new public humiliation even while his friends urge him to reign her in or split up. But gradually, subtle cracks begin to form in his emotionless façade. So when Vic offhandedly takes credit for the disappearance of one of Melinda’s former suitors, in an attempt to scare off her current fling, we’re not quite sure what to make of it. Vic claims that he’s joking, which everyone more-or-less takes at face value due to his prominent standing in the community. But is he? And what danger lies in store for anyone else who dares to come within Melinda’s orbit?
The one-time undisputed king of mainstream erotic cinema, Adrian Lyne is back on familiar ground here and he teases out these questions for much of Deep Water’s runtime. With Affleck, Lyne takes a similar approach to David Fincher in Gone Girl, using the Hollywood golden-boy’s blank jock vibe to shroud him in potential guilt throughout. Affleck responds well at first, sporadically flashing genuine moments of black comic menace, particularly when sizing up Melinda’s lovers, to effectively pierce through his loving family man routine. His verbal spats with Melinda can be amusingly caustic and when a pseudo father-daughter rapport seems to be developing between the two, it makes us wonder whether this is all just some kind of bizarre role play scenario.
Unfortunately, and rather ironically, Deep Water is pretty surface level stuff. Lyne primes us for twists and turns that never really arrive, eventually exposing that there’s no real mystery here at all. This could be an interesting twist in and of itself but since Vic and Melinda are only vague ciphers, none of what happens holds any real emotional weight, despite the screenplay’s clear pretensions of thematic grandeur. Beyond some underlying moral tension over the fact that Vic got rich from creating a computer chip used for drone warfare, we come to know little else about him or why he married Melinda in the first place.
And if Vic is a hazily drawn character, Melinda is entirely a hollow sketch. She is afforded no perspective or personality traits or backstory or anything at all really, existing solely to slink around seductively in a black dress. This could all maybe still work if Affleck and de Armas managed to generate any real heat between them. But when has Affleck ever generated heat with any of his co-stars? You can buy into any erotic thriller story, no matter how ridiculous, if you can at least believe in the horniness of its central characters. Yet Affleck (unlike, say, Michael Douglas or Mickey Rourke in a different time) never looks horny. He just looks tired and depressed.
Over its long gestation and numerous distribution delays, Deep Water has been eagerly anticipated by cinephiles as a heralded return of the type of adult dramatic thriller that’s almost entirely disappeared from the big screen in the 20 years since Lyne last helmed a feature. And in carrying the dual bona fides of Lyne behind the camera and source material by none other than Patricia Highsmith (whose original novel was previously adapted as a 1981 French film starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert), all signs seemed to point towards a winner. But while Deep Water is certainly a handsomely mounted old-school production, this erotic thriller ultimately fails by simply being neither erotic nor thrilling.
It’s also not nearly sleazy enough, which may be the cardinal sin. I’d much rather watch a gleefully trashy Lifetime-movie iteration of this story (which, for my money, is where the spirit of the erotic thriller is really thriving nowadays). For all its promise of delivering racy frissons, Deep Water disappointingly handles sex and desire and the violent consequences that erupt with the kid gloves firmly on.
- Release Date: 3/18/2022