Once upon a time, not too long ago, a film like Deep Water would have been the water cooler talk of offices around the country. The tabloid drama surrounding Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas would have coalesced with the return to cinema off a two decade hiatus for legendary trash auteur Adrian Lyne into something that would have been essential for adult viewers. In some ways, the quality of the film wouldn’t have even really mattered all that much. The dialogue would have been essential.
So very much has changed since Lyne last made a film, 2002’s severely underrated Unfaithful. Nowadays a sex thriller with actual movie stars is released on a March Friday on the world’s 7th most popular streaming service, Hulu. Truly, I miss when the mainstream was a film like this instead of the constant dirge of IP content. I adore my superhero stuff, but the dialogue has become so skewed and broken. I loved The Batman but we need to find room in the dialogue for something more, but in the age of SEO-led social media driven dialogue I wonder if we’re forever trapped in a universe where something like this can never touch the mainstream again.
Adrian Lyne has made some of our great sex thrillers: Fatal Attraction, 9 ½ Weeks, Indecent Proposal, and Lolita. The genre has largely been dormant for a very long time, at least in mainstream US releases. Occasionally a streamer will toss up a movie of this ilk like Prime Video’s The Voyeurs last year, but nothing with this level of star power and credibility behind it. These movies are usually a fun, albeit trashy, mixture of sex, temptation, and violence that’s simply absent from modern multiplexes. That they reached primacy in the 80s is no surprise – they’re the perfect mélange of the serious sensual cinema of the 60s and 70s in Europe with the hyper-violent tendencies of Reagan era American audiences..
Deep Water is about a married couple played by Ben Affleck (The Last Duel, The Tender Bar) and Ana de Armas (Knives Out, No Time to Die) with a twist. The rules are never defined, but it’s clear their marriage is open in such a way that the de Armas character, Melinda, is allowed to sexually experiment with various friends and acquaintances. Only those sexual partners keep turning up dead.
I’m going to lead with the negative here and say this movie is an absolutely unconscionable editing and structural mess. Scenes often flow together with little attention or care to cohesive character arcs. The story essentially lacks a climax or last act. The film seems to tease a certain psycho-sexual eroticism to the murders that it then pulls back from. It’s genuinely difficult to decipher what any of the characters actually want in the film’s back half. I get that this level of messiness might be damning for many critics and viewers.
Nevertheless, I actually come out net positive on the film. Deep Water’s first hour or so works extremely well and the film is often very funny. As Melinda gets drunk and flaunts her sexual openness, Affleck’s Vic Van Allen (an absolutely perfect sex thriller name) frequently lets his frustration bubble to the surface with gallows humor. One sequence sees Vic casually mention to one of Melinda’s paramours that he had murdered a past lover. It’s played for a pitch black laugh. When the three later have dinner together, Vic’s open needling of Melinda’s behavior and the new suitor’s intellect is high grade comedy.
Affleck is on an absolutely tremendous run of late. This is a pure movie star performance that percolates thanks to his immense charm and charisma. The fact that Affleck keeps playing roles that tease around his meta-persona remains an object of endless fascination for me. It’s impossible to escape – and Affleck has spoken openly of this – his rehab and the new impact sobriety has had on his work. That he keeps playing characters poking around substances has a real sense of extra depth to it. The Way Back saw a character deeply ensnared in alcoholism while The Last Duel saw him play a man of hedonistic extremes. The Tender Bar sees Affleck play a bar owner who offers sage advice on how to drink short of excess, while here his role is actively hostile to his wife’s drinking. I cannot think of another performer in the modern era who has so directly leaned into and examined his tabloid persona. There are many ways to quibble with Deep Water’s storytelling, but Affleck’s work here is not one of them. He’s funny, tortured, and menacing just as the story requires.
I found all the rest of the performers perfectly fine. De Armas is suitably alluring. It’s easy to see the electric chemistry between her and Affleck. The supporting cast, including Lil Rey Howery (Free Guy), Tracy Letts (The Humans), and Jacob Elordi (Euphoria), is effective when their character motivations make sense. The Letts character – through no fault of the performer – has a particularly mind-boggling last act.
I cannot help but be left with the thought that Lyne intended to take this film in a far darker and more depraved direction and was held back along the way. Deep Water is a flawed film, but the strength of Affleck’s performance and the icy black humor lead me to cautiously recommend it.
Deep Water will premiere on Hulu tomorrow March 18, 2022.