Gonna let you know right up front: Deep Water is not for me. But it’s not for you either, and it’s not for anyone who likes a well-written, well-directed, and well-cast motion picture. Yet like that proverbial car crash we’re always hearing about, it’s hard not to keep looking at it. Just 10 minutes in, it’s all too clear why this turgid “erotic” thriller — based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, no less (The Talented Mr. Ripley) — was shoved off a theatrical release by 20th Century Studios and shuffled onto a Hulu premiere berth instead.
Ben Affleck plays Vic Van Allen, who’s fabulously wealthy due to his invention of a chip that the military uses in its battlefield drones. In other words, he’s invented something that helps kill people, as numerous characters remind him throughout the film, not that he cares what they think. Flush with cash and retired, Vic lives in a posh New Orleans mansion and does things like raise snails, publish a photography/poetry magazine, and ride his bike through abandoned warehouses.
And, oh yes, he also spends most of his time watching his hot mess of a wife, Melinda (Ana de Armas), come and go as she publicly takes one lover after another, openly spending time with them among both the Van Allens’ friends and their larger social circle. If there was an Olympics competition for being cuckolded, Vic would easily walk away with the gold medal. Yet for reasons unfathomable to us, he stays with Melinda despite the constant humiliation.
One of Melinda’s many lovers, a fellow named Martin, disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and Vic constantly jokes that he was the killer — he even scares away Melinda’s newest boy toy (Brendan C. Miller) by telling him just that story. But when another lover of Melinda’s ends up dead in a pool following a party, Vic’s jokes don’t seem as funny; in fact, one of his neighbors, a pulp fiction writer named Don Wilson (Tracy Letts), decides to investigate Vic and find out the truth.
Deep Water has attracted some attention for two reasons: initially, because it was the first film in 20 years from director Adrian Lyne, who made his bones with several sexually charged thrillers like the classic Fatal Attraction and the not-as-esteemed 9 ½ Weeks, Indecent Proposal, and Unfaithful (his last film before this, made in 2002). Then Deep Water got into tabloid territory when word got out that stars Affleck and de Armas had begun investigating each other in real life, and not like private detectives.
If you’re looking for any signs of heat or sparks onscreen from the now-defunct Benana relationship, Deep Water will let you down: the pair only share one brief sex scene that’s almost over before it begins. When Vic is not doing his own thing, hanging out with his friends, or doting on his little daughter Trixie (the adorable Grace Jenkins, the film’s one bright spot), he spends much of his time staring morosely at Melinda as she either eye-fucks or wraps herself around her various conquests, usually in the middle of a packed dinner party or town event.
That’s what will have you staring morosely at your TV as you struggle to keep your eyes open: like a piano player who only knows one song, Deep Water’s first two thirds are an endless refrain as Vic watches Melinda with one lover after another, while you start to wonder what the hell is wrong with him.
Even when the plot takes a turn in the latter third of the movie, it’s too late. Lyne seems to have lost any talent he had for generating suspense or tension, sexual or otherwise. Those listless snails that Vic raises in a shed in his yard are as good a metaphor for this movie as any, crawling with painful sluggishness across Vic’s fingers and not going anywhere in particular.
The actors seem lost as well, and the two leads are worse than that: they’re miscast. Despite a number of people saying that Vic is “weird” or “not a normal person,” Affleck does little to change his basic blue collar persona, and the character just seems inert rather than seething with the inner rage we imagine he’d possess. He’s in such slow gear that when such behavior does begin to manifest itself, it’s jarring and not believable.
As for de Armas, she’s got the looks to pull off a femme fatale, but her Melinda is all over the map, presenting as an unstable madwoman instead of, perhaps, the bored wife of a rich man who’s looking for some kind of passion in her life (we have to think, not having read the book, that this is more of what Highsmith had in mind). Whatever direction she got from Lyne, it sent her down the wrong path.
Then again, we can’t say if Lyne was giving any direction to anyone. The final 15 minutes of the movie take another turn almost into high camp, capped with one of the most ludicrous car chases we’ve ever seen committed to film (not to mention a truly embarrassing performance from one of the major actors in the cast). Then it all just grinds to a halt, with neither the film nor the characters earning even the meager payoff on offer.
Time to roll out our concluding puns: Deep Water is shallow, Deep Water comes up dry, Deep Water should have been drowned quietly in development, Deep Water is all wet. All of those apply, and so does this: Deep Water is an early contender for one of the year’s worst films.
Deep Water premieres this Friday (March 18) on Hulu.