' ' Cinema Romantico: Deep Water

Monday, May 23, 2022

Deep Water

Having its theatrical release delayed from 2020 to 2021 to early 2022 means that “Deep Water,” billed as an erotic thriller, conveniently opened into a world suddenly lamenting the lack of sex in modern movies. The current season of Karina Longworth’s beloved You Must Remember This podcast goes long on that topic with “Erotic 80s” and the pop culture website Vulture spent an entire week demanding to Make Hollywood Horny Again. And that Disney, which came into possession of “Deep Water” after its merger with Fox, seemed almost embarrassed by it, scratching it from the theater and digitally releasing it on Hulu instead, gives the movie an unexpected veneer of, like, a magazine in a paper bag at the convenience store. And though it’s based on a Patricia Highsmith novel set in 1954, there’s something shrewd in director Adrian Lyne setting it now rather than then so than then, allowing the estranged, sexless marriage of the main characters to reflect this modern world. How “Deep Water” holds up beyond the moment, I don’t know, though the psychological weirdness and richness it teases in the beginning might have helped more than the conclusion going off the deep end. Still, a movie called “Deep Water” going off the deep end feels right too, and even the parts it gets wrong kind of wind up cosmically right.

Ben Affleck plays Vic Van Allen, even though he looks nothing like a Vic Van Allen, maybe more like a John Ashforth, but that’s not the point, a wealthy but young retiree married to Melinda (Ana de Armas) with whom he has an adolescent daughter Trixie (Grace Jenkins). Vic is taking a long bike ride as the movie opens and when he returns home, he and Melinda look at each other, distantly, like they’re both wanting something they know the other is not willing or able to give. If it’s sort of an inadvertent joke that exercise is no substitute for sex, it also establishes the dynamic of their relationship, further illustrated in a later scene at a party at a friend’s house where Melinda immediately ditches her spouse on arrival to cavort with some young himbo while Vic watches through an upstairs window looking...well, what? 

Affleck utilizes his mid-career (current career) penchant for gloomily downplaying to full poker face effect, ensuring you’re not quite sure if he’s happy, sad, indifferent to, or even turned on by this peculiar marital situation. You might think he’s just dim if not for his collecting and sniffing snails, less a plot point than an emblematic window into his unlikely weirdness, and makes you wonder if he’s capable of murder when his wife’s boy turns up dead. Vic jokes, in fact, that he killed him, which in Affleck’s tone of voice really does sound like it could be mere morbid humor, or something else, an open-ended question from which “Deep Water” derives much of its slow-burning suspense.

The early scenes in which Lyne frames Vic and Melinda beneath archways of separate bedrooms initially suggests a movie of dual perspectives. Yet, when we see Vic looking down at his wife from above at the ensuing cocktail party, Lyne never reverses the shot, underlining how the point-of-view remains yoked to Vic. That doesn’t give de Armas much to play to and rather than meeting Affleck on his level, she ricochets right off, turning her performance up to 11 by reducing her character to primal urges. Then again, in essentially walling Melinda off from us, Lyne is also underscoring how Melinda is walled off not just from her husband but her daughter too. Indeed, the most fascinating relationship in “Deep Water” unexpectedly proves to be dad and daughter, as Trixie both openly taunts her mother and is consciously portrayed as being quietly cognizant of her father’s murderous transgressions. It’s a virtual sort of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” origin story just hanging out on the periphery.   

Vic is such an obvious suspect in these deaths that you might wonder how his friends seem oblivious to it. That he is drawn as a robotics engineer, however, who made his fortune installing the chip that made drones more effective does not come across like mere topicality but an evocation of such shrugging indifference. The only person who comments on his profession and on his possible role in the disappearance is a family friend(ish) mystery writer, Lionel (Tracy Letts). This subplot feels trucked in from a different movie entirely, and that’s how Letts plays it, not folded into the rest of “Deep Water” but standing outside it, like he can’t believe he’s part of this world in the first place. And that’s why even though the overcooked nature of the conclusion doesn’t seem to work on the surface, I also felt like it did, utter madness to an outside observer that merely proves part and parcel to this swanky life of endless parties hosted by an assembly line of beautiful, rich people.

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