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Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas in Adrian Lyne’s ‘Deep Water’: Film Review

The director returns after a 20-year absence to the familiar territory of high-gloss adultery and its fallout in this Patricia Highsmith adaptation, premiering on Hulu.

The primary usefulness of Deep Water is as a record for celebrity chroniclers of the off-camera romance that made co-stars Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas a tabloid thing for a minute, hopefully with better chemistry than they generate onscreen. But it does serve a secondary purpose for those of us who have ever considered the prodigious gifts of Tracy Letts as both playwright and actor, and wondered, “Is there anything he can’t do?” Well, turns out he can’t emerge unscathed from an Adrian Lyne erotic thriller, not that anyone does in this case.

Letts plays Don Wilson, a thinly sketched author of some sort, constantly side-eyeing his circle of well-heeled friends who go from one garden or pool party to the next in their leafy suburban New Orleans bubble. Don is supposedly looking to uncover dirt for a book he’s working on, but mostly his distasteful expression just says, “Who wrote this shit?” That’s until he gets tossed into a preposterous climax that seems to have lost some key foundational foreplay in the edit. Which may yield a third raison d’être for the movie should Letts and his wife, Carrie Coon, decide to give it a watch one night and enjoy a few cringing belly laughs.

Lyne, once a prime purveyor of glossy titillation pulp like 9½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal, has been absent since his comparatively classy 2002 entry, Unfaithful. Never a director to say no to a dangerous woman who’s a magnet for trouble, he tackles the 1957 Patricia Highsmith novel that was previously filmed in a 1981 French version titled Eaux Profondes, with Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant, and then adapted for German television two years later. Lyne’s take on the material, scripted without distinction by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson, manages to drain all the subtlety and psychological complexity from Highsmith’s story of marital warfare, transgression and obsession.

Erotic thrillers are hardly on-brand for Disney, which acquired the New Regency title in the Fox merger. So the film has been gathering dust since its originally scheduled November 2020 release date, shifting twice before eventually being bumped to Hulu for domestic and Amazon internationally. It’s ideal streaming fare since you can check your Twitter feed, do Wordle, go online shopping, hell, probably make a grilled cheese sandwich without much danger of getting left behind by the lethargic plotting.

Affleck plays brooding tech entrepreneur Vic Van Allen, who scowls a lot as he furiously cycles around town like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, but mostly just looks bored or constipated. That applies even when he’s being humiliated by the flagrant extramarital forays of his wife, Melinda (de Armas), with a string of men, the younger and dumber the better. One of her recent flings, Malcolm McRae, has gone missing, and without even cracking a smile, Vic scares off her new plaything Joel (Brendan C. Miller) by claiming to have killed him.

McRae’s body eventually is discovered in the woods, and while Highsmith’s novel solved that crime and cleared Vic, the screenplay here — or maybe the desperate attempt to inject some suspense in the edit — keeps things murky. So for much of the sluggish two-hour running time you tell yourself, “No, it couldn’t be that obvious,” and then when you realize it is, you wait for a twist that doesn’t come.

Despite Vic’s emasculated pride, and the pitying camaraderie of his best buddies (Lil Rel Howery and Dash Mihok), he remains a pretty creepy guy. Which is not to say menacing. Having retired young after developing a chip used in drone warfare, he skulks around at home or spends time in a hothouse out back fingering the snails he breeds for visually symbolic purposes I don’t even want to contemplate. The clanging symbolism of Melinda chomping into a juicy red apple she just happens to have handy while taunting Vic in the car is at least less icky.

After Joel’s exit, Melinda moves on to a tall drink of water named Charlie De Lisle (Jacob Elordi), who plays piano in a cocktail bar, welcoming her to the establishment with “The Lady Is a Tramp.” She becomes more brazen at home, returning still drunk in the mornings from walks-of-no-shame, mocking Vic for being passionless and sneering, “If you were married to anyone else, you’d be so fucking bored you’d kill yourself.”

That should tell us something about Vic’s mysterious nature and the kinky interdependence of the couple, who evidently stick together to avoid a messy divorce. Given that the stigma attached to divorce in the late 1950s, when Highsmith wrote the novel, has long since waned, there must be some other magnetic force keeping them together. But the script doesn’t have the psychological savvy — even the curiosity — to locate it. The closest we get is the very Adrian Lyne notion that jealousy is a fierce turn-on. Not that Vic ever seems even mildly aroused. He’s barely awake.

Still, Charlie gets bumped out of the picture to be followed by the return of Tony Cameron (Finn Wittrock), a boyfriend from before Melinda was married. “Tony was the first American I fucked!” she exclaims with glee when he comes to the Van Allens’ house for dinner. Nice ice-breaker. Even before Tony goes missing, Melinda has begun actively accusing Vic of dispatching her conquests, and she’s teamed up with nosy Don to hire the most inept private detective in movie history. And yet, the cops scarcely show any interest in Vic.

A more probing director and writers might have made something of a wealthy white man barely rousing suspicion in the midst of a whole lot of dastardly deeds. But not here. The detective who does briefly question Vic (Jeff Pope) brings up the common knowledge that his wife has been sleeping around but just leaves it there without pursuing the matter further. The lack of coherent logic is as nagging as the complete absence of a sense of place, and despite composer Marco Beltrami’s hard-working strings, tension is also MIA.

While Lyne is the king of deluxe slut-shaming, the majority of the director’s films are better vehicles for his female stars than the men — Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal, Diane Lane in Unfaithful.

The same applies here to de Armas, who looks sensational in about a thousand variations on the little black dress or pantsuit — usually with a plunging neckline or backless — and has a sleepy sensuality that makes you believe she might be good casting as Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominik’s eagerly anticipated Blonde.

But the emerging star was given more range to play in her 10 minutes onscreen in No Time to Die. We know nothing about Melinda’s past except that she has an accent and sings Paolo Conte at a party, so maybe she’s Italian? Her direction seems to consist mainly of “Look hot,” “Dance hot,” “Pout hot,” “Touch yourself.” All we really learn is that she’s a sexpot, to use a term as dated as the material, who needs to be desired by someone less wooden than Vic in order to feel alive.

There’s no question that Melinda is the most alive character in this moribund thriller, which makes it a drag that the perspective is entirely that of dull old Vic, the human snail.

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