There’s something pleasurably disreputable about Adrian Lyne’s twisted domestic drama Deep Water — a trashy, tabloid scandalousness that’s almost quaint. It’s the first film in 20 years from Lyne, who ruled the erotic-thriller genre of the 1980s and ’90s with a string of steamy smash hits like Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal. The film, which comes directly to Hulu on March 18, stars Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, who began a headline-grabbing romance on set, but split long before the producers of the pandemic-delayed film could spin a publicity campaign around them. Even the manner of its release carries a whiff of opprobrium, of something illicit. Disney, which acquired the movie when it bought 20th Century Fox, delayed it twice before pulling its theatrical release altogether, eventually palming it off on Hulu (and Amazon, for international release) with almost tangible distaste. Could it be so perverted, so out of step with the times, or just so plain bad?
“Not really” is the answer to all three questions. True to Lyne’s form, Deep Water is a slick, entertaining cod-psychological thriller, just classy enough to be aspirational, and just seedy enough to satisfy a craving for cinematic junk food. And while its fate might seem ignominious for a film that was once perceived, by its producers at least, as a prestige production — they were clearly fishing for another Gone Girl — it’s a perfect prospect for a Friday night in with a bucket-sized glass of wine.
Deep Water is based on the classic 1957 novel by The Talented Mr. Ripley author Patricia Highsmith at her sour, misanthropic best. Highsmith loved nothing more than to pin down, with sadistic precision, the frustrated, dark desires of the suburban American male. The filmmakers’ unlikely stroke of genius was realizing the perfect modern subject for one of her icy studies of emasculation would be Ben Affleck.
Affleck plays Vic Van Allen, a wealthy idler who has retired to the genteel suburbs of New Orleans on the spoils of a microchip he designed for combat drones. He cycles, edits a vanity arts quarterly, dotes on his sparky 6-year-old daughter Trixie, and breeds snails in his garage. He also tolerates his wife Melinda (de Armas), a fiery lush who conducts brazen affairs with lunkheaded, pretty young men right under Vic’s nose, flaunting them at social events and even inviting them round for awkward dinners. Vic’s friends regard his forbearance with a mixture of admiration, pity, and frustration. What holds him back is the central mystery of the story; whether and when he will snap is what drives the suspense.
Vic is a strange character. He seems to wander through his life in a deadened daze, yet he isn’t exactly passive. He always seems to be in control — perhaps too much control. He only comes fully to life when talking to Trixie or when gazing in humid adoration at his snails, scenes which Lyne and cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoot with an alien glow. (The snails are a wonderfully weird and unsettling touch of Highsmith’s; Lyne has said that the studio was eager to cut them, but he rightly insisted on keeping them in.)
Affleck’s performance is brilliantly modulated. Most of the time, he inhabits Vic with a terrible inertness, only emphasized by his physical size. As he looms darkly in the frame, even his stubble looking depressed, it can seem as if the performance is a conscious self-parody of the Sad Affleck meme. But there are also moments where he shows a scary inch of steel. A previous boyfriend of Melinda’s disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and early in the film, Vic scares off her latest beau by claiming to have killed him. Affleck’s suppressed, hyper-controlled rage makes it all too believable. He keeps Vic deliberately unreadable, up to and even beyond the pool party that brings things to a head midway through the film.
With Melinda, Vic is something else again. In Highsmith’s novel, their marriage is bitter and loveless, but that isn’t Lyne’s kind of kink. So in the film, the couple’s cycle of jealousy and provocation is given a perverse sexual charge. De Armas is an intensely charismatic performer; think of how charming she was in Knives Out, or of how swiftly and elegantly she stole the whole of No Time to Die, and imagine all that energy channeled into a feature-length firework display of messy sexuality. She might have overwhelmed such a subdued Affleck, but it’s more like a meeting between unstoppable force and immovable object. The power dynamic isn’t as one-sided as it appears. Vic’s refusal to let Melinda get a rise out of him is another kind of control, and Lyne, dirty-minded as ever, suggests he might be getting a kick out of it — or they both might.
Not that Deep Water is really a work of deep psychological complexity. Lyne has picked up right where he left off with 2002’s Unfaithful (the one where Diane Lane thinks about sex on a train). It’s almost shocking how untroubled his work has been by 20 years in the wilderness, failing to get projects greenlit.
During that interval, his themes, filmmaking style, and gender politics (to the extent he has any) have gone completely out of fashion. His movies carry an air of sophistication, thanks to authentically great performances and solid scripts (in Deep Water’s case, by Zach Helm and Euphoria showrunner Sam Levinson), and he’s up there with Ridley and Tony Scott as one of the most influential visual stylists of his generation. His blend of lavish real-estate porn and sultry, backlit extreme close-ups has done so much to define what the last three and a half decades of movie and TV dramas look like. But his Hitchcockian overtones are broad, his instincts pulpy, and for the most part, he makes unashamed potboilers that lay it all out on the surface. Deep Water is no different.
That’s why it doesn’t really harm the film that it gets a bit silly as it builds to a climax. It’s a nostalgic pleasure to watch a starry, elevated bit of hokum like this go for the jugular. Lyne smartly puts playwright and great character actor Tracy Letts in the small but key role of a local writer who believes Vic’s line about killing one of Melinda’s boyfriends, and takes his suspicions to their logical conclusion. Letts’ simmering envy and vanity add a nice tang to the curdled melodrama, while the decision to modify Highsmith’s bleak conclusion works surprisingly well.
But the film belongs to de Armas and Affleck. Particularly Affleck, who, in performances as varied as this and his uproarious role in The Last Duel, is showing not only his range and resourcefulness as an actor, but also a sly gift for manipulation of his own image. Sad Affleck is a relatable avatar of thwarted, impotent middle age, of clutching defeat from the jaws of privilege and success. Deep Water gives us the vicarious thrill of watching him let it all go.
Deep Water will begin streaming on Hulu on March 18.