[Originally published on Geek Vibes Nation.]
Once upon a time, the erotic thriller roamed movie theaters.
Before the days of Netflix, IP blockbusters, and OnlyFans, audiences turned out in droves to see movie stars clinched in passionate and precarious embraces. Films like Fatal Attraction, 9½ Weeks, Basic Instinct, Indecent Proposal, and Disclosure dominated. (Michael Douglas and Demi Moore made a meal out of the genre.) However, the heat under the collective collar has cooled in recent years, and the genre retreated to premium cable and streaming services. (The Fifty Shades trilogy is a notable and regrettable exception.) It seemed like the days of squirming in your seat were over.
On paper, there was no better person to revive the erotic thriller than Adrian Lyne, behind films like Fatal Attraction and, most recently, Unfaithful. (Glenn Close and Diane Lane received Oscar nominations for their respective work.) This time, his muses are Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck, in the long-delayed Deep Water. They play the Van Aldens, a couple trapped in a marriage of immense luxury and flagging interest in each other. Melinda (de Armas) shamelessly engages in affairs. She invites her “friends” over to the couple’s house parties and flaunts her raging passion in Vic’s (Affleck) face. Vic takes to Melinda’s cuckolding of him surprisingly well. Well, except for the fact that her lovers often wind up dead, and he’s the unapologetic culprit.
It is an intriguing, perhaps even daring premise. The cuckolding fetish is far outside the mainstream, meaning there’s potential to explore its appeal and how it can curdle into something sinister.
Deep Water fulfills none of the tantalizing possibilities. Instead, it settles for a frigid melodrama with two people barely passing as real human beings.
The script, by Zach Helm and Euphoria showrunner Sam Levinson, is partially at fault. They fail to fully develop Vic and Melinda, a critical error since we need to care about them. Shallow mystery takes precedence over specificity. We don’t know how Vic and Melinda ended up in this one-sided open marriage. Besides a desire to maintain the family unit, we don’t understand what keeps them in this terrible arrangement. (I’d imagine the barely-disguised animosity and the affairs are more toxic to their child than two separate households.) They say they love each other, but who knows why? They scoff every time someone raises divorce, the clear solution to this murderous nightmare. That is supposed to be a satisfactory answer; it’s not at all.
The emptiness poisoning the characterization also poisons the plot. Deep Water relentlessly teases the true nature of Vic and Melinda’s arrangement. Is Vic really a serial killer of his wife’s lovers? Is Melinda complicit in Vic’s crimes, or even an active participant? Are Vic and Melinda acting out some psychosexual kink to spice up their dying marriage? Every answer (yes, no, and I wish) is disappointing, swerving from something worthwhile towards something bizarre and banal. When you reach the third act – when the film hops off the narrative rails – you will either roll your eyes in exhaustion or laugh at the absurdity. Neither are reactions you should have with an erotic thriller.
Deep Water, not satisfied with lacking thrills, is also decidedly unsexy. That might be the point; their marriage is supposed to be on life support. However, the absence of heat or even mild warmth is jarring. Lyne crafts an undeniably handsome and stylish film, but it feels coldly remote, even when it’s capturing the film’s surprisingly few intimate moments. It doesn’t help that the central couple has very little chemistry. Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck are a startlingly mismatched pair. They are unable to convince us that Vic and Melinda were ever a loving, sexual, or even functional couple. (The scene in the teaser trailer is practically false advertising.) It takes a near act of violence for something to spark between them, which is not-so-coincidentally and disturbingly the film’s best scene.
To de Armas’ credit, she does seem to understand the assignment. She is fascinating to watch, her piercing eyes and slinky physicality simmering with the kind of unpredictable volatility that Glenn Close brought to Fatal Attraction. She is the sole source of any genuine sex appeal that Deep Water manages to scrounge up. Unfortunately for her, Affleck is no Michael Douglas. He can’t keep up with her fiery presence, and, frankly, he doesn’t try. He is more comfortable without her, peeling back Vic’s nice-guy facade to reveal the menace beneath. (He’s also good at playing dad to the daughter, who’s more aware of his darkness than he realizes. Again, another wasted possibility.)
Deep Water is such a misfire that it makes you wonder if it’s actually a meta-commentary. Maybe Lyne has decided filmgoers don’t deserve a good old-fashioned dangerous romp after we settled for lighter, sexless fare? If that is the case, then he succeeded. If Fifty Shades of Grey had bruised the erotic thriller genre, Deep Water might have landed a fatal blow. Pulses won’t be racing, but don’t be surprised if people looking for divorce court are.