Director Adrian Lyne helmed Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal – but his latest, Deep Water, isn’t the erotic thriller it’s described as.
Spoilers lie ahead for Deep Water.
Deep Water is director Adrian Lyne’s first film since 2002’s Unfaithful. He’s a filmmaker known for his erotic thrillers – sexually charged films that are usually about steamy affairs gone wrong. Nominated for an Oscar for the (in)famous Fatal Attraction, the film made its way not just into pop culture and the libraries of film fans, but also the English lexicon with the term ‘bunny boiler’. So why is Deep Water the opposite of erotic, despite its promotion suggesting otherwise?
Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, the film focuses on the dysfunctional open marriage of Vic (Ben Affleck) and Melinda (Ana de Armas) Van Allen. Their relationship isn’t entirely open – it’s only Melinda who takes on various other lovers, often flaunting her relationships in front of their mutual friends. The whole dynamic is incredibly spiteful on both sides. When Melinda’s lovers start going missing and the situation turns fatal, Vic becomes a primary suspect.
One of Deep Water‘s most obvious problems is the lack of chemistry between the leading couple. It’s clear that Vic and Melinda have a rocky and complex relationship, but with Affleck and de Armas constantly frosty towards each other it’s hard to believe these two have ever touched in their lives. Melinda’s affairs aren’t steamy, either. Most of her interactions with these other men happen within full view of Vic and many others, and seem driven by malicious intent. She’s trying to goad him. In other words, it’s more cruel than it is sexy. Even when she moves these liaisons to a more private place, Vic lurks in the corridor outside and makes the whole thing rather uncomfortable.
Affleck himself doesn’t help the situation much. Over the course of the movie, Vic becomes less and less tolerant of their current dynamic. Instead of depicting the rage simmering just below the surface, he’s stone cold the whole time. Mostly he stares out of windows at Melinda and her partners, while looking like he’s completely checked out and given up on caring. The one time he gets angry Melinda shouts “finally, some passion!” and I’m inclined to agree. It’s hard to make a steamy erotic thriller when one half of the lead couple has all the emotional expression of a wooden plank.
And then there’s the snails. Yes, snails.
As a substitute for spending time with his wife, Vic lovingly cares for his vast collections of snails. A lot of the time we see them slithering around in close-up, being all slimy and off-putting. To make matters even worse, I’m sure they’re being used as part of some weird symbolism or euphemism. Frankly, I really don’t want to think about it too much and I’d recommend you shouldn’t either.
Ultimately, you need two things to make an erotic thriller work – sex and a psychopath. That might be part of why the genre died out in the first place. Both the portrayal of sex on-screen and the negative female stereotype of the ‘bunny boiler’ have been widely debated. Either way, Deep Water has far too little of both of these things.
For the first hour the plot lags, establishing the couples’ lack of affection and slight hostility. They seem largely ambivalent towards one another, and when they do sleep together (for the first, brief, and only occasion in the film) even that can’t convince anyone that they like anything about each other. The whole film just feels cold and completely lacking in any passion whatsoever.
Then there’s the element of danger, and that doesn’t come in until right near the end. When Vic is suspected of murder, Melinda says she’s not scared of him. But fear is an integral part of a thriller – can you imagine how dull Fatal Attraction would be if Glenn Close’s Alex wasn’t utterly terrifying? Without that sense of threat, Deep Water plays out more like a relationship drama – a version of Marriage Story where the protagonists decide an open relationship is better than divorce.
The only part of the movie that even resembles a thriller is the last 20 minutes, where it goes completely off the rails. It’s only at this point that the plot finally feels high stakes, and Affleck finally shows up to do some proper acting. It might be belated, but in the end Deep Water provides some amount of danger and thrill. It’s just a shame it takes such a long, boring, passionless route to get there.
It’s a disappointing film from Adrian Lyne and a disappointing performance from Ben Affleck. I would love to be proven wrong, but Deep Water makes you feel that maybe there’s a reason erotic thrillers aren’t made anymore…
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