Movies · Reviews

‘Deep Water’ Sees Adrian Lyne Resurface With a Darkly Fun Love Story

Think a lesser, messier, but still entertaining ‘Gone Girl.’
Deep Water
20th Century Studios
By  · Published on March 16th, 2022

Any conversation about the erotic thriller subgenre is going to include more than a few mentions of Adrian Lyne. 9 1/2 Weeks (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), Indecent Proposal (1993), Lolita (1997), and Unfaithful (2002) are some of the genre’s most memorable entries leading Lyne’s directorial career to become synonymous with all things sexy, stylish, and erotically charged. (The unfortunate side effect being that too many people have forgotten about his brief detour into a different genre all together with 1990’s still-excellent Jacob’s Ladder.) In addition to being his last erotic thriller, Unfaithful was also Lyne’s final film, period — until now. Twenty years later he’s finally returned, and if Deep Water can’t quite compare to the raw steaminess of the films that preceded it, it’s by design. This is an enjoyably dark peek into the desires and demands of an outwardly unhappy married couple that entertains with a deceptively light touch.

Vic (Ben Affleck) is a father, a husband, and a retired IT whiz who hit it big after developing a microchip for drones. His hobbies include raising snails, writing poetry, and riding his mountain bike, while wife Melinda’s (Ana de Armas) interests are limited to one — flirting, flaunting, and fooling around with other men. Their friends have noticed, and the gossip has grown to include the idea that Vic may have even killed one of Mel’s previous “friends,” an idea that Vic himself originates by jokingly telling her current obsession Joel (Brendan Miller) that he murdered the missing man with a hammer. Things only grow more complicated and murky when another one of her male friends drowns in the pool during a party. Is Vic a cuck who’s cracked, or is something else at play here?

This will surprise viewers, but Deep Water is a surprisingly and intentionally funny movie. Early comparisons to David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) are accurate as much for the superficial plot similarities as for the darkly comic heart beating beneath its surface, and while it’s not nearly to that film’s level it’s still an unexpectedly entertaining look at love’s many varied forms. Looks can be deceiving, and one couple’s dysfunction can sometimes be another’s secret to a healthy relationship. What brings two people together might just be the thing that drives another apart. What turns one person on could be a libido-killer for the next. Expectations, it turns out, are as fleeting as the sweat from a one-night stand.

Deep Water‘s script, co-written by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson — the writers of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (2007) and Euphoria (2019-2022), respectively (and hilariously) — is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith‘s 1957 novel of the same name (which in another quick reference to Gone Girl is one of Gillian Flynn’s favorite books). It retains the premise and key initial beats of Highsmith’s Deep Water but makes some drastic changes in the back half resulting in a wholly different direction and outcome. As mentioned, that outcome is a slyly humorous thriller about the ups and downs of one couple’s love life. Lyne and the writers are ultimately less interested in the core mystery than they initially let on, but it’s in service of a temperamental and oddly endearing love story.

Affleck and Armas are joined in their mildly twisted journey by friends and neighbors including Lil Rel Howery, Dash Mihok, and an out of his element but clearly having a blast Tracy Letts. The whole cast is on the same page here walking a fine line with a story balancing serious consequences with a crafty wink. While far from a broad comedy, there are some beats in Deep Water that encourage an audible laugh, and Affleck is the face behind many of them. He excels at playing damaged everymen with a shadow about them, someone whose disarming charisma gets them in the front door even as their darkness leaves a threat hanging in the air. A warm but tired smile, a hulking menace slowly approaching, a man whose intentions can seemingly turn on a snail’s shell — with the right material, Affleck is as capable of George Clooney’s charm as he is of Tom Hardy’s brutishness, and his comedic delivery highlighting his exhaustion with life is never less than entertaining.

Where Deep Water runs shallow, though, is in the “erotic” part of the erotic thriller subgenre. There’s no denying the physical appeal of the players here, but the on-screen canoodling is kept mostly to a minimum as touching, heavy breathing, and suggestive antics just out of frame are often the norm. Vic and Mel share some brief interactions on that front, all aborted prematurely, and we catch glimpses of her in the tub or with her boy toys, but in general it’s his tamest film since 1980’s Foxes. The exception here comes in the unlikely form of scenes showing Affleck finger his snails. Yes, you read that correctly. Lyne’s camera captures Vic’s affection for his gastropod buddies with lens flares and an eye for their glistening, mucus-covered flesh, and his relationship to them is made clear when he mentions that they’d scale a twelve-foot wall to reach their mate.

There are minor bumps elsewhere — some rough green-screen fx during driving scenes, a clearly visible stunt rider during a biking scene — but in general, Deep Water is an attractive film given shape by cinematographer Eigil Bryld and composer Marco Beltrami. Cigarette smoke and sweat are minor players here compared to Lyne’s previous outings, but there’s a greater focus on characters’ faces gazing at each other with love, lust, disdain, and doubt. Vic and Mel reveal as much through their expressions as they do with the words, and both shift over the course of the film as surprising events give rise to unexpected feelings.

Vic’s jealous and seemingly lacking in passion, Mel’s a button pusher who’s fearful that he’ll grow bored, and while they’re unhappy together it’s possible that no one else deserves to be stuck with either one of them. Deep Water is the story of a couple whose love appears to be fading and heading towards disaster, and the rash of disappearances only hastens that fall, but it’s one told with a knowing grin. Lyne knows what he’s doing here and has fun riffing on the steamy seriousness of his past films by crafting a steadily paced thriller about an atypical relationship. The humor is lowkey, but it pairs extremely well with the dark heart beating beneath this couple’s troubled love story. Here’s hoping the eighty-one year-old doesn’t wait another two decades before his next film.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.