Film Review – Deep Water
Twenty years after his last directorial outing, Adrian Lyne has returned to once again explore the depths of toxic relationships. From 9½ Weeks (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), Indecent Proposal (1993), and Unfaithful (2002), Lyne’s career has been filled with stories of love, infidelity, sexual temptations, and jealousy – usually leading to deadly results. His latest effort, Deep Water (2022) continues this trend. Written by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson (adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel), the story involves a relationship we quickly realize is unhealthy. It ebbs and flows between reconciliation and disaster, and part of the intrigue is seeing how things eventually end. Although this doesn’t reach the heights of Lyne’s previous work, it shows that he still has something to say in an often-traveled genre.
There is a sleaziness to the characters that make them both repulsive and fascinating. You know those couples that always fight, but seem tailor made for each other? This is an extreme example of that. Vic (Ben Affleck) and Melinda (Ana de Armas) have an unusual marriage. Despite their life of comfort and wealth, there is clearly bitterness between them, and in any other instance would have divorced by now. But to stay together and for the sake of their daughter Trixie (Grace Jenkins) the two have come to an agreement: Melinda can sleep with as many lovers as she wants as long as she never leaves Vic. She flaunts her various male “friends” at parties and get togethers, in front of Vic and everyone else. It also doesn’t help that Melinda has a blossoming alcohol problem, which makes her behavior more erratic and humiliating for him.
Why would Vic agree to this arrangement when he obviously hates it? In the world of film noir, Melinda would be considered a “femme fatale,” a female character who uses their sexual prowess to control men. Melinda knows that Vic can’t live without her, which allows her to do just about anything she wants. She sleeps with other men to alleviate her boredom, and Vic lets it happen because he doesn’t want to lose her. This situation is rife with tension – we know this balancing act is too perilous to last forever. Things take a turn when several of Melinda’s lovers are found dead in increasingly suspicious fashion. Why is this happening? Is Vic somehow involved with the deaths? Is he the type of person that could kill out of spite and possessiveness, or is there something more alarming happening underneath it all?
Throughout his oeuvre, Lyne has been adept at portraying character’s thoughts and feelings as they become overwhelmed with sadness and anger. Few things are as emotionally devasting than discovering a cheating partner. Lyne is very good at showing how characters imagine their loved ones in the throes of passion with someone else, and how the grief is almost too much to bear. Throughout Deep Water, Lyne (along with cinematographer Eigil Bryld and editors Andrew Mondshein and Tim Squyres) continuously cut back and forth between Vic’s forlorn face and the images in his head of Melinda with other men. Every laugh, hand touch, or shared drink she has with someone else only further fuels his hate. Vic becomes a ticking time bomb of conflicting emotions. Although he tells his friends that everything is fine, his body language says the complete opposite.
Ben Affleck takes some of what he did in Gone Girl (2014) and brings it to his character here. He juggles a natural charm while trying to suppress his inner darkness. His performance makes us believe that he can be a sweet and loving father to Trixie but can also make us wonder if he is able to commit murder. It’s a tricky role – any wrong move could drop the character into hammy territory, but Affleck doesn’t let it get to that point. Some of the more fun scenes has Vic slyly intimidating Melinda’s latest fling. His deadpan delivery has them question whether is being serious or just joking around. While his awkward jokes are brushed off by his friends, Melinda’s boyfriends are less than amused.
In contrast, Melinda is an underwritten character. Ana de Armas brings energy and charisma to the role – filling both the alluring and repellent traits that make Melinda a person Vic loves to hate. Unfortunately, there isn’t much more beyond that. The fact that her various dalliances has more to do with her wanting excitement in a mundane life operates on a surface level. This may have more to do with the narrative being told through Vic’s perspective, but even then, Melinda remains an enigma. She appears self-centered, neglectful of her daughter, and a tad unhinged, but why? Why does she stay with Vic if she loathes him? Are her flings meant to fulfill a physical need, or is there an underlying motivation at play? Is she only a harbinger of chaos, whose sole purpose is to make her and Vic’s lives miserable? These are all questions the film never fully addresses.
The third act simply doesn’t work. It’s here where Vic and Melinda’s façade of a happy marriage takes a turn for the worst, diving headfirst into thriller mode. There are too many contrivances for the climax to pay off believably, culminating in a chase scene that is more laughable than captivating. Despite the weakness of these sequences, Lyne does end on a peculiar final shot. I will not describe it in detail, but he punctuates his film with a closing moment that makes us re-evaluate Vic and Melinda’s entire relationship. This decision might just be an instance of the narrative throwing in one last plot twist to throw us off balance, but I found it fascinating. It makes one think that the poisonous nature of Vic and Melinda runs much deeper than we initially surmised.
I don’t mind watching bad characters doing bad things. Sometimes the joy of movies is in seeing characters commit crimes and try to get away with it. That’s the tone Lyne and his team reach for with Deep Water. This may not end up being remembered as well as his earlier work, but Lyne gives us enough naughty fun to make it worth the trip. The film features two characters that may despise one another but deserve no one else.