Behind the well-documented fling Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas had during COVID lies a film that seemed like it would never get a release date. A shame considering that Deep Water is both the sort of film you don’t see in theatres anymore and the long-awaited comeback for director Adrian Lyne. His choice to adapt this particular Patricia Highsmith novel, about the deadly games an unhappily married couple plays, feels fitting. The last time Ben Affleck stepped into some literary pulp (Gone Girl), it worked out pretty well.
Of course, this is a vastly different landscape than when Gone Girl struck a chord with audiences in 2014. After Disney acquired 20th Century Fox and Searchlight, the effort to promote those studio releases has been lacklustre at best. The French Dispatch, The Last Duel, West Side Story, and Nightmare Alley all dropped into theatres with little fanfare or against stiff box-office competition. In one last ignominious push to Hulu, the Disney purge of films from 20th Century/Searchlight ends with Deep Water. Still, Adrian Lyne’s return to filmmaking after a long hiatus (post-Unfaithful) is worth anticipating. Erotic thrillers have largely gone by the wayside or been stretched into miniseries on premium cable. Given A-list actors and a handsome budget, Lyne’s film has the ingredients to remind people why Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction lodged in the public psyche.
Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas play Vic and Melinda Van Allen, a couple with seemingly everything. The Van Allens want for nothing because Vic made his money in drones and retired several years earlier. Melinda keeps her interests elsewhere. Lyne sets the evening like any other in a married household. The husband gets the kids settled while the wife is getting ready for an evening out at a friend’s house. The difference occurs almost immediately once the Van Allens arrive. As Vic gets cocktails, Melinda spots a young man, grabs him, and heads to the dance floor immediately. Soon, she parades her new friend around Vic with little care for the stir it causes at the party.
Vic often says he’s “not normal,” and that becomes clear as the evening gets stranger. Melinda has affairs, yet Vic never addresses them. He turns a blind eye to every man she disappears with at the party. Most of them are smart enough to just nod at him and keep moving, but Joel (Brendan Miller) is daft, so Vic jokes that he killed Melinda’s missing friend, and off he goes. They go home and seethe against each other. Melinda hints at divorce, but Vic refuses to break up the family. Then, next week, they do it all over again. It’s only after one of the men turns up dead that Vic and Melinda’s game of marital chess reveals itself.
Armas and Affleck met during the filming of Deep Water, and the chemistry was good enough to set the internet on fire while off the set. Unsurprisingly, the finished result is quite steamy. Yet Lyne is unafraid of getting tense as well. When Mr. and Mrs. Van Allen have the knives out for each other, you get Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-style dinners with Vic and the men that Melinda brings home. The dinner party episode of The Office has nothing on Deep Water.
Armas captivates in a way that calls back to the glory days of noir and Femme Fatales. Her eyes project both the requisite allure and malice that hits any man in a room in several different ways. Melinda chastises her husband for treating her as the dumb spouse, yet it’s clear she is punching above her weight. Armas is already well-known by cinephiles, but Deep Water could’ve boosted her profile had it debuted in theatres and not on Hulu. Affleck accepts a role reversal from his last showy role. In The Last Duel, he played Pierre d’Alençon, a man petty beyond words, always ready with an insult. As Vic, he is the resigned husband with a still-pool for public appearances, but below the surface roils raging waters.
Erotic thrillers have a wide berth in terms of plot. The best functionally do both sexy and thrilling, though some titillation comes at the cost of suspending disbelief. Deep Water is oh so close to threading the needle. The film maintains tension until it arrives at an implausible third act, losing a handle on the thread in the process. Part of that falls on adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel, which takes leaps of fancy in how much could go down in a conspicuously small town. The police do still exist.
Some will view Deep Water as an exercise in morbidity, watching for the souring relationship between Affleck and Armas. Others will be curious about what an erotic thriller looks like in 2022. Either viewer is likely to leave satisfied, which is more than I can say about the state of the Van Allen marriage.
I’m still disappointed that this is being dumped to streaming, but now, there’s no reason not to dive in.
Deep Water arrives on Hulu in the U.S. and Amazon Prime internationally March 18.