Film, Reviews

DEEP WATER un-erotically fails to recharge a lost genre

If there is a film genre that has gone the way of the dodo in recent years, it is the erotic thriller which Deep Water director Adrian Lyne practically solo-propagated between the 1980s-1990s.

He lensed some of the best and most renowned. Fatal Attraction, probably the signature example of the genre that isn’t Basic Instinct. 9 & 1/2 Weeks which turned Kim Basinger into the Hollywood sex symbol of that decade. Indecent Proposal, which did similar for Demi Moore at the turn of the 90s. They are films which even if people haven’t seen these days, they are ubiquitous cultural touchstones within cinema that recall a different age. You might have flickering memories of Moore being seduced over a pool table or Glenn Close the bunny boiler.

Lyne last made a film, a lesser well known vehicle in the genre called Unfaithful, twenty years ago exactly, at a time not just cinema but media at large was undergoing the early beginnings of the metamorphosis we have seen in the 21st century. Some critics have suggested the decline of the erotic thriller, both Lyne’s classier big budget efforts but equally a litany of cheap, fairly sleazy soft core knocks offs which now litter Amazon Prime Video, was down to the internet’s proliferation and liberation of pornography out of the back alley stores and onto people’s desktops and laptops.

There could well be some truth to this. Are we aroused in the same way as we enter the 2020s? Lyne’s return with Deep Water looks to answer this question.

Lyne first sought to adapt Patricia Highsmith’s fifth novel, written itself in a very different era in 1957, back in 2013 at the median crux point of cinema’s evolution into where we are now, and the spread of streaming media.

As Lyne explained when discussing the film, Deep Water’s central passionate couple had an entirely different core story in the original text:

it’s about a man who’s disenchanted with his wife because she’s fucking around, but he’s not interested in her sexually, and eventually he bumps the lovers off and then finally her. So what I tried to introduce was a complicity between them so that, for example, when he looks through the window at the party at the beginning of the movie, she knows he’ll be there. She gets a sense that he’ll be there so that there is a feeling a little bit like she’s doing this not only for herself but a little bit for him so that he is interested in her sexually. He’s jealous, obviously. He tries to deal with it, like in that scene where he’s putting lotion on her and he says, “I wish you’d get somebody with brains,” but within 30 seconds, he’s coming onto her and getting turned down. So you’ve got the dichotomy, which I think is interesting. And so that’s what really what the movie was about: jealousy and how to deal with it.

Deep Water focuses on ultra rich military drone developer Vic Van Allen (Ben Affleck) and his wife Melinda (Ana de Armas), parents to young Trixie, existing in a privileged but seemingly loveless and largely sexless marriage. While Melinda entertains herself with a string of attractive men younger than her husband, beguiling friends and family around her with her vivacity, Vic is telling everyone that he murdered her previous ‘special friend’ who went missing some months ago, especially her newer suitors. Therein lies the crux of Lyne’s film and the balance it treads between psycho-sexual drama and outright bleak thriller.

Part of the problem is that it never picks a lane entirely to go down.

This is not, it’s fair to say, Lyne’s best work in this genre, but it is more interesting than some critics or audiences are giving it credit for. Affleck is almost meta-casting in the manner Michael Douglas would have been (because he would 100% have played this role if the year was 1992); known for a string of high-profile glamorous Hollywood relationships (including a fling with de Armas while making this film), addiction, even #MeToo accusations, Affleck comes with his own baggage which makes him quite a tantalising piece of casting for a modern take on the old school erotic thriller. He plays Vic in somnambulist fashion, dour, ageing and quietly bitter, and one wonders if Affleck plays the part as well because he identifies with aspects of who is otherwise a deeply suspect individual.

Set against him, de Armas brings the strident sexuality we saw her display (albeit too briefly) in No Time to Die but ejects the youthful naïveté she played so well in Knives Out. She is more the duplicitous, twisted girl from Knock Knock fused with a traditional difficult wife, and this is harder to categorise in the 2020s without sounding utterly sexist. Whether Melinda owns her own sexuality and is taking back that power from Vic, who seeks control, or she is a manipulative cheat playing mind games with her husband will be up for you to judge. Lyne and Zach Helm & Sam Levinson’s script never really decides. The director seeks a level of complicity, as he says. He wants them both to be just as guilty as each other.

What these two very good central performances can’t disguise is the sheer lack of eroticism inherent in Deep Water. Lyne has a point when he talks about eroticism as “What is erotic is “Did I see that or didn’t I?”. That mystery, and not seeing things clearly, and quick enough to be tantalizing, but not rolling around in it.” He really does. Horror performs the same trick in, for example, Alien, where the creature is infinitely more terrifying for the fact we only really see it fleetingly. Eroticism should be about the chase, the dance, the possibility. Deep Water doesn’t overload the sex scenes in the way it could have done but at the same time, it doesn’t broil with heat or passion. Vic & Melinda genuinely don’t seem to like each other enough to make the entire game they play worth it.

It all ends up just being a little needlessly melodramatic in order to try and invent some level of danger, threat or impetus. Affleck grows more intense and creepy as the bodies pile up. De Armas, who was genuinely worried audiences might actively dislike her in the film, grows increasingly hysterical. And great character actors like Tracy Letts are reduced to pantomime at the end as Lyne stages easily one of the most ludicrous, not to mention hackneyed, chase sequences you’ll see this year. Deep Water just doesn’t seem to know how to escalate the tension or bring the audience into the psycho sexuality of Vic & Melinda. It could be in the book, Highsmith readers will know. If it was on the page, it doesn’t translate.

Though the film looks less impressive on digital as it might have done on film, Lyne does provide a sense of wealth-driven, naval gazing atmosphere, but it is really difficult to get behind this kind of film right now – beautiful rich people who should be perfectly content in a very privileged life literally fucking around in their lives. There was maybe deeper glamour around that in decades past where these worlds held more of a classy allure but the shine is very much off wealthy white people these days. There is no fantasy about this world, unless you have a deep yearning to knock boots with Affleck or de Armas (which I wouldn’t blame you). It just feels empty. Perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps that’s why Lyne makes Vic an agent of imperialist geopolitical destruction. He is meant to horrify.

In that sense, Deep Water and the other main release of the same weekend, Fresh, have something in common, in that they both feature deeply toxic men who otherwise convey significant all-American charm that underneath are monsters. Lyne’s film is no horror picture but Vic’s deliberate attempt to control not just his wife but his entire environment underscores how, despite the director’s attempt to make Melinda complicit, Vic here is the bad guy. He is not a cuckold. He is not the victim of a whore. He is the problem. And in this case, he will kill to make sure nobody knows it. Lyne once again, as he did with Unfaithful, explores the horrific consequence of jealousy and control, only within a very different paradigm.

Deep Water might not entirely work as a film but it does open a doorway long closed. There are better modern erotic thrillers to be made. Perhaps it is well past time fresh filmmakers start going back to the bedroom.

★ ★ 1/2

DIRECTOR: Adrian Lyne

WRITERS: Zach Helm & Sam Levinson

CAST: Ben Affleck, Ana de Armas, Tracy Letts

STUDIO/DISTRIBUTOR: Hulu / Amazon Prime Video

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