Director: Adrian Lyne
Stars: Ana de Armas, Ben Affleck, Jacob Elordi
Throw a rock these days and you’ll strike a thinkpiece eulogising sexiness in mainstream cinema. These takes have a point. The Disneyfication of the marketplace and the eagerness to secure as wide an audience as possible have edged out more adult-oriented content. But to say such cinema has bitten the dust is to ignore a slow-building renaissance of erotica in the mainstream. After all, these articles evidence that the thirst is there. In 2021 Amazon Prime pushed the trashy delights of The Voyeurs with noticeable keenness, while Adam Driver made a year out of going down on his costars (sometimes while singing!). Sauciness is there in the movies, you just need to know where to look.
A one woman renaissance all of her own, Ana de Armas is out there hotting up anything she puts her name in front of. From her breakout appearance in Eli Roth’s divisive Knock Knock to injecting the only immediacy in the latest Bond outing, de Armas brings it. Her involvement in the razzmatazz return of Adrian Lyne feels like a match made in heaven. Moreso than her ill-fated romance with co-star Ben Affleck.
de Armas stars here opposite Affleck. They are wealthy married couple Melinda and Vic. Melinda is openly adulterous, even staring into her husband’s eyes as she seduces mutual acquaintances at some swanky bourgeoisie gathering. Vic passively accepts her affairs, but Melinda’s openness causes friction for Vic as others are less forgiving of her candid sexuality. When Vic icily says he killed one of Melinda’s former lovers, one is prompted to wonder whether he’s actually joking and Affleck plays the ambivalence deliciously.
Outwardly playing as an ‘evolved’ and loving couple, frictions between the two are barely hidden. Melinda openly accuses Vic of creating and dropping bombs. Hilariously, its their young daughter who comes to his defense, noting that he only wrote the code for a bunch of drones. Their antagonism becomes an open family sport. And when Vic starts wading into similarly deep (aha!) waters – dancing with a pretty girl at another social gathering – Melinda rewards him. They are briefly hot together again. They seem to be goading one another; something that manifests more dangerously in other aspects of their marriage.
Both actors are gleefully turned on to Lyne’s affectionate tone of self-awareness. Deep Water isn’t a continuation of his former byline in erotic thrillers, but rather a knowing celebration of the genre’s inherent sense of high-wire melodrama. Lyne leans into genre tropes even when it comes to heavy-handed symbolism (witness the way in which Melinda hungrily bites from an apple on their way home from that early soiree). Melinda and Vic’s sparring – especially when they have an audience – is immensely entertaining. Affleck hasn’t seemed so engaged with a co-star on screen since Gone Girl. Speaking of which, Vic quickly comes to feel like a funhouse reflection of Nick Dunne; deriving great self-satisfaction from playing the role of a possible murderer. An incident at a pool party considerably muddies the waters. Resentments spill out into the open. Did he? Didn’t he? It’s almost a shame that, come the end, Lyne’s film and the story compel a reveal either way.
But if there’s a trope Deep Water most delights in toying with, it’s one of the genre’s hoariest; the Black Widow-type. Initially de Armas’ Melinda doesn’t seem to fit, cleaving closer to the free-spirited sex kitten model. But what if Vic’s tempestuous – and maybe lethal – reactions are the source of her desire within the marriage? Then she becomes a Black Widow by proxy; engendering situations for her partner to take over. What plays out here between them is wickedly perverse.
The days of erotic thrillers igniting scandals feel long over. We’re a generation raised on the internet. The world isn’t nearly so closeted. As such anyone entering into Deep Water expecting blood pumping eroticism might find themselves short changed. You’ll get as much if not more celebrity skin from a single episode of HBO’s Euphoria (this is literally Patricia Highsmith by way of Sam Levinson, by the way; he has a screenwriting credit and it’s her source material). But that is not to say that the movie disappoints. Anything but.
de Armas smoulders as usual, but Affleck proves the surprise delight, weaponising his perceived blandness with a glint in the eye. He isn’t the only one sparkling. Lyne himself is playfully riveted by the dynamics between these two and questions abound of what constitutes normality in a marriage. The movie plays the contract as a perpetual battle of wills. When passion fades, can’t animosity and complicity become the source of the spice that fuels what remains? Where is the line between what’s healthy and what’s necessary? It is as though Lyne is carrying on the final thought from Fincher’s aforementioned thriller. There’s also something to be said for the film’s depiction of rich complacency and it’s connection with violence.
Lyne’s movie appears on first approach to be elegantly detached, but get up close and it is boozily curious. It’s good to have him back.