The allure of sex, lies and crimes of passion are what will undoubtedly rope viewers into Deep Water—director Adrian Lyne’s first film in two decades—but the movie doesn’t exactly deliver on conventional fronts. Boiling over with the heat of forbidden desire, it also explores a tense and grisly possessiveness that only adds fuel to the fire, even as exactly whom this amorous tirade benefits remains murky until the very end. Considering Lyne’s previous work in the erotic thriller genre, some might find Deep Water disappointingly lacking in salacious sex scenes; however, this does not mean the film is absent eroticism. The tension that mounts between Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas’ characters—and those who watch their relationship dissolve from the margins—hurtles all involved into a deranged sensual game, one which doesn’t mind building a body count for the sake of getting off.
Vic (Affleck) and Melinda (de Armas) lead a life that at first seems enviable. They have a sprawling manor in New Orleans with their precocious young daughter, while also maintaining a healthy social life dominated by a constant state of party-hopping. It becomes evident that the couple is obsessed with occupying their nights in the homes of their friends, lest they be confronted with the discomfort brewing within their own walls. An unspoken agreement between the couple has resulted in Melinda freely engaging in steamy affairs with a string of lovers, but they can’t seem to stop suddenly disappearing. While their arrangement might appear mutual, Vic is constantly distressed by the imbalanced dynamic, often feeling emasculated and pitied by his peers. While Melinda flouts these relationships in public, Vic retreats home to care for their house and daughter, creating a resentment that festers until it can’t help but erupt. Unfortunately, Vic’s seething rage is directed at Ricky (Jacob Elordi, who co-writer Sam Levinson almost certainly cast due to their Euphoria ties), resulting in a confrontation that threatens to destroy his marriage, reputation and sanity. Adapted from the Patricia Highsmith (The Price of Salt, The Talented Mr. Ripley) novel of the same name, Deep Water is a pulpy melodrama through and through, keeping viewers invested by revealing a trail of lies as opposed to a trail of discarded clothes.
In a sense, Deep Water has already been preceded by a certain mythology. Affleck and de Armas met during filming in 2020, and their intense chemistry spilled off of the set and into the major tabloids. During the early days of the pandemic, the couple garnered considerable attention during their paparazzi-captured COVID-era neighborhood walks and through their own lovey-dovey social media posts. Yet the initial hype around their relationship just as quickly morphed into an obsessive voyeurism over their separation just a year later, with particular emphasis placed on the grandiose statement of Affleck publicly throwing out a life-size cardboard cut-out of de Armas outside of his Los Angeles home. A testament to the foolhardy nature of romantic gestures, their breakup somehow managed to shine a positive light on both parties—Affleck for drowning his sorrows is precariously stacked Dunkin’ Donuts orders, and de Armas for girlbossing just close enough to the sun to get a really great love story out of it. When word got loose that the erotic thriller which kindled their own relationship was finally set for release, it created a separate hype all of its own—just far enough out from the de-coupling to not feel like a cheap publicity stunt. As such, the film also captures a radiant chemistry bouncing between its two leads that feels prescient in its folly, documenting two thespians sprouting love while the film’s central ethos foreshadows its very demise.
The film also stands out as a righteous return for director Adrian Lyne, whose previous directorial effort was 2002’s Unfaithful. While Deep Water might not have the explicit sexuality that so many of the British director’s other films contain—after all, the man did helm 9 ½ Weeks and Fatal Attraction—it certainly delivers on Lyne’s penchant for racketing tension, often infusing the story with a palpable feeling of imminent dread. The success of these thrillers is often predicated on the strength of its central actors, who must convey intense desire followed, at least on behalf of one of them, by distinct disinterest. This is channeled perfectly through Affleck and de Armas, whose kinetic pull dispels intrusive thoughts as to why the two don’t just separate if they seem so thoroughly miserable with each other. There’s an underlying sense of yearning and teasing that makes even the most overt signs of infidelity still somewhat inviting, as if Melinda is begging Vic to barge in on her and one of her various lovers—perhaps to watch, perhaps to join, perhaps to kick the other guy out. Either way, Vic inches his way closer into Melinda’s trap, playing right into her hands even when he seems to be pushing it away.
There’s a very good chance that the film’s zero-sum game will not appeal to everyone, least of all those who flip it on with the hopes of a tumultuous sex-fueled affair. More akin to the similarly Affleck-starring Gone Girl than Fifty Shades of of Grey—or if we’re using Lyne’s filmography as a reference, more akin to Lolita than An Indecent Proposal—Deep Water is a sweat-inducing psychological scheme that is constantly aiming to intrigue and titillate. The paperback pulp origins of Highsmith’s original story are kept intact, alleviating any semblance of eye-roll worthy ridiculousness that doesn’t at least try to make an interesting point. As each shocking revelation tacks on another clue in the sprawling mystery, the audience isn’t sure just who or what to believe—making the film’s fiery ending all the more jaw-dropping.
Director: Adrian Lyne
Writers: Zach Helm, Sam Levinson
Stars: Ben Affleck, Ana de Armas, Tracy Letts, Lil Rel Howery, Jacob Elordi
Release Date: March 11, 2022 (Saban Films)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste, Blood Knife and Filmmaker magazines, among others. Find her on Twitter.