It has been 20 years since Adrian Lyne last directed a film and sadly, his adaptation of Deep Water doesn’t live up to the particular brand of sexy thriller upon which he once built his career. Hinting occasionally at moments of intrigue, the new addition to his oeuvre is surprisingly timid and sluggish, so afraid to go too far that it never goes anywhere at all.
Based on the 1957 novel by Patricia Highsmith, this version of Deep Water is set in our modern day. Ben Affleck is Vic Van Allen, a successful tech innovator who created a very specific computer chip and retired young to enjoy family life. Vic and his wife Melinda (Ana de Armas) have a six-year-old daughter (Grace Jenkins), whose language and understanding of the world far exceed her age. Vic and Melinda’s marriage isn’t a happy one, although it’s supposed to look something like picture perfect from the outside. All their friends, though, know Melinda spends most of her time in the company of other men while Vic pretends not to be bothered by it.
But of course he is. And Ben Affleck’s brooding, pouting, quasi-spy games are the only times the film starts to get into anything real or deep. He glares through windows, sets his jaw firmly while watching his boozy wife fall all over her latest “friend,” narrows his eyes whenever any of the neighbors comment on Melinda’s proclivities. With a better script, this would have been a great character for Affleck, a more frightening and intense version of Gone Girl‘s Nick Dunne. Instead, Vic Van Allen has a strange (and never explained though prominently displayed) affinity for snails. He glowers and grimaces and vows never to divorce his wife. Why? We don’t know. Just a personal choice, apparently.
For her part, Ana de Armas is beautiful and lively, but Melinda’s cruel selfishness isn’t given any room to develop. There is no consideration for why she may be so heartless, apart from a few throwaway lines about feeling suffocated in her loveless marriage in prudish America. Deep Water seems to want to be a story about toxic spouses, but isn’t quite sure how to do so in a way that feels truly compelling. So many of the problems between Vic and Melinda are told to us either by one of them, or by neighbors trying to console the man who clearly doesn’t want to be consoled.
When Vic threatens one of Melinda’s boyfriends by taking credit for the murder of another of her past lovers, we get one of just a few glimmers of fiendish delight. Some thirty minutes in and we think it’s finally starting to get good. But the moment is fleeting and its place is taken up with a lot of questions. Why is Vic so opposed to divorce? Why does he pretend to be fine with Melinda’s affairs when he clearly is not? And do we even care if he did have something to do with Martin McCray’s disappearance? And when six-year-old Trixie offers her own wise-beyond-her-years commentary, we are left to wonder whether the writers have spent much time around actual children.
The New Orleans setting and Adrian Lyne’s previous filmography promised something Deep Water never delivers. For the man who directed such films as Unfaithful, Fatal Attraction, and Indecent Proposal, this film has all the heat and passion of a 1990s NBC movie-of-the-week. That it is tame isn’t necessarily the problem. The real issue is that what is left on the screen is dull and lifeless, often boring. It’s not just that there’s a lack of sex, it’s that no one seems particularly interested. And when sex is one of the driving points of your story — or more specifically, someone having it with people they aren’t supposed to — it requires a certain amount of heat to make that convincing. This probably resulted from a few simultaneous problems. An unexciting script. Studio interference. Maybe Lyne has simply toned down his aesthetic in the past two decades.
Regardless of how or why, Deep Water is a tame attempt at a psychological thriller that never delves into the psychological, is short on thrills, and relies too much on the audience to fill in its own blanks. Character motivations are unclear, the dialogue is often terrible, and attempts at mystery never succeed in becoming mysterious.