For a director who has only made nine films in forty-two years, Adrian Lyne has mastered the art of choosing a lane and staying in it. With the exception of Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Lyne’s films have all centered on female sexuality in some way, shape or form, and often that sexuality is weaponized, sometimes with fatal consequences. Lyne’s most famous film, Fatal Attraction (1987), wrote the book on the modern sexual thriller, and his last film, Unfaithful (2002), continued familiar themes of infidelity and murderous female sexuality. Although Unfaithful was twenty years ago, Lyne hasn’t missed a beat in his latest film, Deep Water, as the eighty-one-year-old treads some very familiar ground in this film that is so reminiscent of his earlier films that it could be called nostalgic if it weren’t so horrifically cringe-inducing.
Written by Euphoria’s Sam Levinson and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium Zach Helm and based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, Deep Water stars Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas as married couple Vic and Melinda, who have an interesting arrangement. Apparently, in exchange for not agreeing to a divorce, Vic allows Melinda to have affairs with anyone she wants—and not discreetly. Even though he has seemingly allowed this, Vic is clearly upset with his wife’s behavior and he takes to threatening each one of his wife’s paramours. The couple is the subject of gossip among their group of friends, and, when one of Melinda’s former “friends” goes missing, the gossip intensifies. But no amount of gossip or missing and presumed dead lovers stops Vic and Melinda from playing their game, even though Vic’s timebomb of tolerance is clearly about to detonate.
While there is a certain level of pulp and melodrama that comes baked in when you adapt a Patricia Highsmith novel (see Carol or The Talented Mr. Ripley), it is up to the screenwriter and the director to interpret Highsmith’s story for the screen and in Deep Water, Levinson, Helm and Lyne have all chosen to amplify the pulp and make Deep Water much less of a physiological thriller than a plain old sexist and misogynistic male fantasy writ large, with just enough of a story to be insulting.
This film is the definition of the male gaze, and while that’s nothing new, the truly mind-boggling part, especially in this day and age, is that the gaze’s focus is on a woman who is defined by her sexuality, barely even a complete woman, let alone a human. De Armas’s character is presented in the classic roles of Madonna/whore throughout the film. When she is not seen as a doting mother to her young daughter in brief scenes straight out of a soap commercial, she is parading around parties, drunk off her ass, lifting her skirt, throwing her hair, and flirting with any male in sight. This is not just a game, this is her entire character. Even if you can believe that this couple is playing a game and she ramps up her behavior simply to get under his skin, that would only be effective if there were any other texture to her character. Melinda’s entire existence is as a sexual being, save for the five minutes where she is a mother—and a bad one at that. The only people she talks to or engages with are her lovers, her child or her husband. She is the “life of the party,” the hilarious subject of gossip among her friends. Even worse, Vic is held up as this successful, popular and put-upon husband who everyone just feels sorry for. If you thought Lyne plumbed the depths of sexism with his portrayal of deranged lunatic Alex Forrest, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Sadly, this role will not do for de Armas what Forrest did for Glenn Close, as one wonders why de Armas, an incredibly talented actress on the rise in Hollywood, agreed to this film in the first place. Her character is literally nothing more than an object, and it gets more and more infuriating as the film goes on. What’s even worse is her character’s uselessness is only matched by Affleck’s sympathetic psycho. If Melinda literally traipses around the entire film flirting, Vic is constantly lurking in the shadows, watching her. He watches her through windows, watches her through doorways, from the tops of steps, as he gets a drink at a party. Affleck spends more time staring at de Armas in this movie than he does speaking any lines. It’s all quite unnerving and yet, it’s all acceptable because de Armas and Affleck are beautiful, their characters are rich and this is an Adrian Lyne movie. There is an added expectation of chemistry between Affleck and de Armas, who famously started dating after meeting on this film, but there is little actual passion portrayed between them. The promise of sultry and sexy never manifests, and the only thing truly dangerous is the screenplay.
Everything about this film is preposterous, one-note and capped off by a climactic sequence that literally inspires guffaws. As for their performances, Affleck and de Armas do their best with what they are given, neither has to work very hard at all. There is a supporting cast, including Tracy Letts and Euphoria’s Jacob Elordi in key roles, but both are wasted, and Rachel Blanchard and Lil Rel Howery come off like a Greek chorus, giggling and whispering in the corner. Letts’s character becomes more involved as his is the only one who seems to be concerned with Vic’s actions, but even he is in it for the potential subject matter to use for the book he’s writing.
Simply put, there is nothing and nobody redeemable in this film, with the noticeable exception of young Grace Jenkins, who plays Vic and Melinda’s daughter, who provides the film’s only light moments, stealing it completely with her charming rendition of Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing.” If only this whole film were karaoke.
Lyne’s direction is what you would expect, a lot of lurking camera angles and steamy locales—leave it to Lyne to feature a snail greenhouse, just for cinematic effect. Exactly what that effect is supposed to be is the biggest mystery of this film.
Deep Water may be Adrian Lyne at his most Lyne-iest, but, in 2022, audiences are not as easily fooled by an overly sexualized female character who can barely form a complete sentence and who is controlled by her leering, violent husband—nor are they as forgiving. This film has no purpose, no redeeming qualities, and there is no reason for anyone to spend time or money on it. It’s no surprise that 20th Century Studios kept delaying its release, finally pushing it directly to Hulu, avoiding theaters altogether. The film took so long to come out, Affleck and de Armas dated, broke up and have already moved on to other relationships. Audiences should consider doing the same.
Dark Water will be released March 18, 2022 exclusively in the U.S. on Hulu.
Photo: Claire Folger