‘Deep Water’ Review: Erotic thriller drowns in mediocrity
Returning to film after a 20-year absence following 2002’s steamy Unfaithful, Adrian Lyne once again finds himself in the erotic thriller genre he bolstered with classics like Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal.
Adapted from the 1957 Patricia Highsmith novel, Deep Water would seem to be an easy swim for Lyne’s first pool laps in quite some time, but the lane markers of compelling cinema trip him up repeatedly.
With its pulpy story involving murder and mystery surrounding a loveless marriage, the film frequently basks in the reflected glory of David Fincher’s Gone Girl, while not exactly earning the comparisons on its own merits. Beyond other similarities like muted color palettes and ellipsoidal-shaped narratives, both films also share Ben Affleck in lead roles that admirably push his range as a performer.
Affleck stars as Vic Van Allen, a middle-aged computer engineer who retired early after a big payday from developing a chip crucial for drone technology. His extra free time allows him to develop apps, spend plenty of time with his daughter, Trixie (Grace Jenkins), and try to ignore the affairs that his wife, Melinda (Ana de Armas), flaunts openly in front of him. Their open marriage is a tenuous agreement between Vic and Melinda, who are no longer in love but also don’t want to put Trixie through the pain of a separation. When one of Melinda’s ex-lovers turns up dead, rumors spread that Vic murdered him, which catches the attention of local crime writer Lionel (Tracy Letts). As Melinda’s trysts pile up, Vic’s jealousy grows along with his violent reputation around town.
The mystery surrounding Affleck’s character and the layered, yet natural, performance that he gives are enough to allow Deep Water float along for a time.
The snippy script by Sam Levinson and Zach Helm finds Vic and Melinda sniping at each other with barbed exchanges that create a tragic portrait of their miserable marriage. “He lets me be myself and that turns me on,” Melinda blithely remarks to Vic about one of her lovers.
While Vic’s jealousy and bitterness are understandable and give his character dimension by extension, Melinda comes across as more of a soulless nymphomaniac rather than a duplicitous femme fatale. Since her breakout role in Knives Out, de Armas has been a welcome presence in Hollywood but the role she’s chosen here is almost sexist in how plainly her character is written.
In regards to storytelling, there are more than a few signs that Lyne is rusty when it comes to crafting a tale for the screen. There’s something awkward about the staging of scenes; the claustrophobic parties and stilted dinners almost seem as if they’re from the perspective of a bored 6-year-old who’s put off by their stuffiness and just wants to go home. The central mystery surrounding the tangibles of Vic and Melinda’s arrangement are teased but never satisfyingly revealed. There are also odd details that are given too much screen time like Vic’s hobby of collecting slugs, though that could serve as a metaphor for the snail’s pace that plagues the 115-minute runtime. By the time the outlandish finale rolls around, the movie did the impossible: convinced me that Tracy Letts could give a bad performance.
Originally slated for a November 2020 theatrical release, Deep Water is yet another cast-off from a major studio that now heads direct-to-streaming after the market has proven lukewarm to dramas like this from a box office perspective.
With a tantalizing teaser trailer and backed by the tabloid-fueled off-screen relationship between Affleck and de Armas, a film like this would’ve likely made its budget in two weeks under different circumstances.
If Lyne is to continue in a similar vein of psychological thrillers, he’ll need to be more stringent about the screenplays that he chooses to bring to life. Coming from a director who is such a master of this genre, Deep Water is a suspiciously shallow experience.