I'm not sure if Deep Water is art or trash. I just know that it's immensely entertaining, and people are going to greatly enjoy debating whether it's art or trash. The film marks the return of Adrian Lyne, director of 9 ½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, and Indecent Proposal. He hasn't made a movie in twenty years. Now he's back with the kind of erotic drama that established him in the first place. Judging by what's onscreen, Lyne has lost none of his style, nor his penchant for sucking you in with a sexually-charged story.
Based on Patricia Highsmith's novel of the same name, the film stars Ben Affleck as Vic Van Allen, a guy trapped in a loveless marriage to younger wife Melinda (Ana de Armas). The two have reached an uneasy truce. She'll stay in the marriage and he'll allow her to have a series of male “friends” with whom she sleeps. Now that one of those friends has mysteriously disappeared, she's taken up with another, Joel (Brendan Miller). Vic is not as okay with the arrangement as he lets on. He scares Joel away, leading Melinda to yet another man, and then another.
Vic jokes that he killed the guy who disappeared. No one takes him seriously except Lionel (Tracy Letts). He and wife Jackie (Kristen Connolly) are close friends, but only she believes Vic is a good guy. Lionel senses something fishy. Deep Water traces what happens as Vic becomes increasingly jealous with each new lover Melinda takes, leading us to wonder if maybe he truly is willing to kill to keep her all to himself.
Part of the fun of Deep Water is the suggestion that Melinda is intentionally pushing Vic to the brink. It's a game they play, where she provokes his jealousy and he responds by trying to get rid of these other guys. The screenplay by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson is effectively structured to show how each new dalliance increases Vic's possessiveness. Although there's plenty of sex and nudity here, the story has a psychological component to match the eroticism. Pat Benatar once sang that “sex is a weapon.” It's an idea the film takes to heart. At some level, Melinda may be using her sexuality to punish the husband she's grown to find dull.
Note-perfect performances from the two leads go a long way toward making the explicit material work. Affleck does some of his strongest work, showing how Vic seethes while avoiding theatrics. We can feel the rage burning ever brighter inside of the character, thanks to his efforts. He finds a hundred different facial expressions to imply this guy's inner torment. Ana de Armas captures all the qualities that make Melinda irresistible to men. She's flirty, provocative, sultry, and sensual. At the same time, the actress demonstrates the cruelty that underlies those things. Melinda likes punishing Vic through her behavior.
Deep Water has a few slightly cornball moments in the third act, as Lionel starts pursuing his suspicions, and there's a weird goes-nowhere subplot about Vic breeding snails. At one point, we get a close-up of a box of snails tipping over inside of Vic's car during a dramatic chase, shortly after he's explained to someone why eating them is fatal, but that's never followed up on. It's a Chekhov's Gun that doesn't go off. Lil Rel Howery is here, too, as one of Vic's friends. Presumably, his job is to provide comic relief, although humor isn't really necessary in an erotic thriller.
When it's sticking to the Vic/Melinda dynamic, which is most of the time, Deep Water is racy, risqué fun. Good to have you back, Adrian Lyne.
out of four
Deep Water is rated R for sexual content, nudity, language and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.