‘Deep Water’ is a fragmentary look at a dissatisfied couple’s open marriage.
Adrian Lyne, an 81-year-old English filmmaker, created a name for himself in Hollywood decades ago with films like Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, and Unfaithful, which were sleek, absurd, and usually fascinating stories of wayward marriages and rash impulses.
Lyne’s triumphant return after a two-decade hiatus is one of the draws of Deep Water, his latest adaptation of a 1957 Patricia Highsmith book. Another is that the film’s actors, Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, started dating in 2019 while filming the movie. They’ve since split up, as you may have heard, and the film — which was originally intended for cinemas but was repeatedly postponed due to the epidemic — is now being released on Hulu with little fanfare.
As a result, Deep Water delivers the titillating sight of a real-life ill-fated pair portraying a fictitious ill-fated relationship, similar to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut or Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in By the Sea. For what it’s worth, Affleck and de Armas don’t have much chemistry onscreen, which seems to be on purpose. Vic and Melinda Van Allen are a very affluent couple who reside in New Orleans with their little daughter.
Vic and Melinda have an open marriage, at least as far as Melinda is concerned: she spends the most of her time hunting about town for romantic, mainly dull-witted young men, sometimes bringing them around for dinner. Vic can hide his envy to a certain extent. The way he manages to show his disgust for Melinda and her numerous partners without losing his cool is part of the movie’s appeal.
Highsmith’s chilly cynicism is interesting, but it doesn’t quite mesh with Lyne’s frothy manner. He and his co-writers, Zach Helm and Sam Levinson, have brought the tale up to date and tweaked the premise. However, the basic concept remains the same: when Melinda’s boyfriends start showing up dead, accusations begin to circulate that Vic is to blame. Vic’s beloved snail collection is one of Highsmith’s more quirky embellishments, and if you’ve ever wanted to witness Ben Affleck gaze on tenderly while snails creep over his outstretched hand, here is the movie for you.
Deep Water seemed to move as slowly as those snails at times. It’s a self-aware chuckle at moments, and a disconnected drag at others. Significant portions of the plot seem to have been removed, especially as it races toward an almost hysterically abrupt conclusion.
Meanwhile, the filmmaker continues to add his unique touches, from the Architectural Digest furniture to the subtle nudity; an Adrian Lyne film wouldn’t be complete without the female protagonist soaking in an ancient bathtub. The novel raises the fascinating notion that Melinda and Vic are engaged in some wacky prolonged role play, but whatever game they’re playing isn’t really entertaining in the end.
De Armas, who starred in films such as Knives Out and No Time to Die, seems to have been instructed to flirt, drink, and scream at the top of her lungs. Affleck, who has long been underappreciated, fared better: He succeeds at portraying the golden boy gone to seed, as he did in Gone Girl, another potboiler about a loveless marriage. Vic’s placid exterior hides something dark and cryptic behind it, even before we hear how he made his millions – he designed a microprocessor that’s now utilized in drone warfare. It’s enough to raise the suspicions of a nosy neighbor, portrayed by Tracy Letts in her trademark sharpness.
Deep Water is refreshing because, unlike Fatal Attraction and Unfaithful, it lacks the moralistic element that has frequently damaged Lyne’s work, in which couples wander from blissful marriages and pay the price in a flurry of awful violence. This film subtly inverts that setting, in part by making the Van Allens’ marriage so unpleasant in the first place. The filmmaker, like Highsmith, seems to have no illusions about how genuinely heinous individuals can be, and his candor is refreshing. I wouldn’t call Deep Water a terrific film, but I can’t deny that having Adrian Lyne back is a positive thing.