After two decades, Adrian Lyne returns with his latest erotic thriller “Deep Water” starring Ben Affleck and Ana De Armas in what is a work of trash art.
Adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson (“Euphoria”), “Deep Water” relishes the discomfort of sexual power plays and manipulation. Man, I missed movies this nasty.
Vic (Affleck) is a stupidly wealthy former microchip developer who retired after selling his technology to the military (for drone warfare, no less). Vic’s wife, Melinda (De Armas), is a woman of leisure, partying with abandon and flagrantly participating in a series of extra-marital affairs.
Keeping them together and the audience uncomfortably aware of their games’ stakes is an adorable daughter Trixie (Grace Jenkins). Jenkins plays Trixie as a cannily aware, precocious young daughter who has already begun navigating her parents’ games by playing games herself. Dash Mihok’s Jonas, Lil Red Howery’s Grant and Devyn A. Tyler’s Mary play Vic’s friends and voices of reason.
The more Melinda parades these dalliances in their social scene, the more these friends counsel Vic about the shameful discomfort of their position. Vic tells Melinda’s new friend Brendan (an unwashed surfer bimbo played by Joel Dash) that he killed Melinda’s last and mysteriously missing ‘friend’ in a particularly scandalous moment. While Vic’s friends see this as a dark and misguided joke, new addition to their town and social circle, crime writer Don Wilson (Tracy Letts) suggests there’s something more sinister afoot.
The very best of “Deep Water” is its ability to relish in the discomfort and the conflict of the utter toxicity of this relationship. Helm and Levinson take the blueprint of the novel and set it in contemporary time, which by doing so makes sense to more directly address the dark kink of the relationship.
Melinda is a messy ‘dom’ routinely pressure testing her marriage to the hulking submissive Vic with a carousel of adulterous suitors and scenarios of increasingly uncomfortable proximity. Lyne, and the script from Helm and Levinson, carefully modulate the sensual, the shame and titillation.
By being guided by Affleck and De Armas’ clear, palpable attraction, Lyne finds it easy to show how paralysed Vic is by Melinda’s presence. Lyne’s gaze focuses as keenly on De Armas’ lithe figure as on her suitors. Jacob Elordi plays jazz pianist Charlie De Lisle and his large fingers get more than one hero shot. Finn Wittrock plays real estate developer Tony Cameron, an intelligent and snappily dressed friend of Melinda’s who she proudly shares was her first shag in the U.S.
Ben Affleck’s Vic is an exciting companion to Nick Dunne from Gillian Flynn and David Fincher’s “Gone Girl.” Vic and Nick are both husbands responding to their wives’ torment. Nick is the deeply unlikeable and yet wholly put upon husband figure being framed by the psychopathic genius Amy (Rosamund Pike). Vic has the contradictory discomfort of relishing the manipulation and mind-games of Melinda and being driven into an amoral possessiveness.
Ana De Armas’ Melinda is the perfect subject for this erotic psychological thriller. A mixture of distinctive dizzying good looks, graceless self-destruction, reason undermining attraction and perverse antagonism. The greater the insult, the more overt the social faux pas, the more you cannot look away. De Armas drunk acting is particularly affecting; she embraces the unforgivable callousness toward Vic but also for the care of her daughter.
Lyne’s camera surveys this destructive behaviour with mesmerising steadiness. So much of “Deep Water” is observed perch from uncomfortable vantage points. The camera feels like bait, and the characters stalk into its gaze and reveal their darkest selves. On more than one occasion, Affleck’s Vic submerges from lower floors of the house to peer through stair banister gaps – reminiscent of prison bars. Other times the camera perches atop stairs to track characters compulsively looking around corners, into dark rooms, or towards their partners when we know that whatever they discover will only hurt them more.
Some of the darkest exchanges aren’t verbalised. In one scene, Vic interrupts Melinda bathing and shaving her legs. Vic stares at Melinda with a shackled desire. Melinda volleys his leer with a dismissive turn, using her razor to landscape her undercarriage. This dark snub quietly exclaims that her grooming is not for him.
In the hands of inferior filmmakers, adaptations like “Deep Water” get lost in a collage of streaming thumbnails. Lyne’s command of perspective, mixed with the radiant heat of the Affleck/De Armas affair, creates an old fashioned dirty cocktail.