What deliciously evil fun Deep Water turns out to be! That’s something I haven’t been able to say about an Adrian Lyne film in over two decades, since Lyne was the frequent purveyor of such erotic guilty pleasures as Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, and Unfaithful. Here, Zach Helm (Stranger Than Fiction) and Sam Levinson (Euphoria) adapt the 1957 Patricia Highsmith novel about a troubled married couple, long out of love, who begin a twisted power game of temptation and jealousy, until people start turning up dead. But what makes it so enjoyable are the performances by Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, who began a tabloid-buzzing relationship on set, but broke up before the film ever saw the light of day. It’s like the best of “Sad Affleck” meets Gone Girl shamelessness and I couldn’t get enough.
Interestingly, I’m not sure I’m supposed to like it. That’s the feeling I get from Disney, who acquired the film as part of their acquistion of Fox, then pulled its theatrical release and moved it, unceremoniously, to Hulu where it’ll open on March 18th. To be fair, this perverted cuckold/murder thriller hardly fits with the Mouse House branding, regardless of its star power. But there’s the distinct whiff of this being dumped into an already-crowded week of new releases. Whatever. Maybe Lyne’s type of film, clearly geared towards older audiences who have been through the relationship wringer, are out of style in today’s landscape?
I don’t care. Give me more of it. Affleck plays Vic Van Allen, a restless New Orleans retiree made rich by designing a microchip used in drone warfare. He doesn’t do much anymore but raise a snail farm, occasionally go out for bike rides, play with his whip-smart daughter Trixie (Grace Jenkins), and eyeball his flirty young wife, Melinda (de Armas). Every single day it seems she’s found either a new friend or an old one suddenly back in town. Each one is impossibly handsome, a little bit dumb or awkward, and she can’t stop flaunting around her affairs with them, right in front of Vic and their chatty friends. That he’s looked at as a pathetic cuck doesn’t seem to bother him, though. He watches, gives in to her when she pays him attention, and the cycle repeats. Except, some of these guys seem to be disappearing.
Vic is the most fascinating figure of the film by far, because he’s such a strange mystery. He doesn’t seem that upset about his lot in life. Sometimes he seems to be genuinely in awe that he has someone as gorgeous and energetic as Melinda as his wife. He looks at her with a mix of admiration and disgust. When confronting her various paramours, Vic becomes something else altogether. When speaking with one, he blatantly alludes to the death of another of Melinda’s so-called friends, terrifying the poor guy. But he then flips it around and plays nice, becoming pleasant in the way the wolf was really nice to Pinocchio. Affleck’s tighly-wound, controlled performance is among the best he’s ever given. It’s very similar to the performance he gave in Gone Girl, in which he plays another husband/killer who lived a certain domesticated facade.
A subtle but important twist to Highsmith’s novel sees this toxic couple as getting off on this strange game of oneupsmanship they’ve been playing. In the book, their marriage is pretty awful and Melinda seeks a way out when she discovers who her husband really is. But Lyne’s version is in keeping with the style we’re accustomed to from him, as Melinda, while not quite an active participant, is damaged enough that she’s willing to play along. It’s a really fucked-up power play where she exerts a certain amount of control over Vic by flaunting her indiscretions, and he fights back by refusing to explode the way most normal men would. That he is willing to kill for her is the kind of kink Melinda digs.
That’s about as complex as it gets, though, which is perfect for Deep Water and for Lyne. In truth, the whole thing gets sillier as the body count grows, Melinda gets more flagrant, and Vic more brazen. But that actually works in the film’s favor. Twenty years away and Lyne hasn’t missed a beat. His style, still a mix of high-class prestige drama and trashy smut, is the sweet spot that Deep Water nails that other similar films drown trying to emulate.