Patricia Highsmith’s “Deep Water” is a 1957 novel about a smart man in a soured marriage who grows so mad with jealousy over the affairs that his wife keeps flaunting in front of his face — and so resentful toward the reliable boorishness of her lovers — that he starts murdering her boy-toys with the same brazenness that she took them into her bed. Adrian Lyne’s “Deep Water” is a 2022 Hulu movie about a smart man in a soured marriage who grows so mad with jealousy over the affairs that his wife keeps flaunting in front of his face — and so resentful toward the reliable boorishness of her lovers — that he starts murdering her boy-toys with the same brazenness that she took them into her bed… and it makes his wife horny as hell.
The distinction is subtle until the moment it’s not. Which isn’t to say that Melinda Van Allen was innocent in Highsmith’s version, only that Lyne’s faithful but slyly transformative adaptation — its script credited to the MadLibs-worthy duo of “Euphoria” creator Sam Levinson and “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” writer-director Zach Helm — is galvanized by the suggestion that she gets off on the idea of her husband’s crimes.
The old Melinda was plenty sadistic towards hubby Vic, but she immediately began plotting her escape once it was clear that she could be married to a serial killer. The new Melinda is just as cruel and no less suspicious, but the mere idea that the stale loaf of Wonder Bread she’s married to might have found his balls for the first time since their six-year-old daughter was conceived is too exciting for her to cut and run.
“He doesn’t want to control me like a normal man,” she laments to a friend at one of the lavish theme parties that all of the pod-people in the Van Allens’ wealthy New Orleans neighborhood seem to attend every weekend. To some, that might sound like a good thing. The way Ana de Armas says it, it’s a completely valid excuse to subject Ben Affleck to the most unapologetic cuckery an actor has had to endure on screen since William H. Macy in “Boogie Nights.” In other words, 81-year-old Adrian Lyne hasn’t lost his swing in the two-decade absence he’s taken since “Unfaithful,” and it’s so dang good to have him back, even if only for one last ride, and even if that ride is skipping right past movie theaters.
For those of you aren’t old enough to remember when it was legal for movies to have sex in them, Lyne was the master of erotic thrillers about infidelity. “Fatal Attraction,” “Indecent Proposal,” the 1997 Showtime version of “Lolita” (intensely uncomfortable, even by “Lolita” standards!), if people were fucking around on their spouses, Lyne was the guy who insisted you find out. Also, he directed “Flashdance.” And while the filmmaker’s craft has never been shakier than it is in this stilted and wildly uneven tale about the twisted strings that tie some couples together, it’s also never been clearer that said filmmaker is Adrian Lyne. Not only does this delirious movie find him swan-diving back into the same fetid lap pool of envy, lust, and psychosexual control where he used to swim laps every morning, it finds that he’s basically got an entire lane to himself.
“Deep Water” is shallow on the details of the Van Allens’ marriage, but it’s clear from the start that the most beautiful couple in town have something pretty ugly back at home. Worse, everyone else knows it. Their friends and neighbors — a kibitzy social group that includes Lil Rey Howery, Rachel Blanchard, and the great Dash Mihok playing someone named Jonas Fernandez — may not be aware that Vic and Melinda have been sleeping in separate beds, but that’s basically the only aspect of her sex life that Melinda doesn’t wantonly put on public display.
Melinda loves that all of their friends and neighbors are at the same party to see her canoodle with a mouth-breathing grad student named Joel (Brendan C. Miller, serving great “I’m young enough to think this is about me” energy as the first of Melinda’s many lovers we meet), even if the spectacle doesn’t seem to get a rise out of her husband. All it does is make him look like a Vic-tim — a man of infinite grace who’s willing to suffer any indignity for the sake of the daughter he loves (cute kiddo Grace Jenkins). It’s a role that affords him a lot of goodwill in the community, which comes in handy once he starts telling Joel that he murdered the last guy who fooled around with his wife.
Is he joking, or is he one of Highsmith’s Ripley-like sociopaths hiding in plain sight? Either way you slice it, our boy isn’t handling things as well as it might seem. A bored engineer who retired young after selling his drone technology to the government — ironic for someone who can’t even surveil the comings and goings inside his own house! — Vic has precious little to distract him from the spectacle of his decidedly unspectacular marriage. His only comforts: taking daughter Trixie to school, tending to the massive snail farm he keeps in the basement like a totally normal guy who doesn’t murder people (men will literally spawn thousands of gastropods instead of going to therapy), and receiving some occasional road head from his wife whenever she feels threatened by the obvious fact that every other woman in town wants to get humped by her husband.
“Deep Water” may be as short on steaminess and stingy with nudity as you might expect from a movie in which sex is almost exclusively used as a weapon, but Lyne maintains a studied fascination in the messiness that tends to follow — emotional or otherwise. (Or, told another way, this critic can’t remember the last time I saw an A-list movie star pick a pubic hair out of her teeth on the big screen.)
It’s a messiness that doesn’t sit well with Vic’s clean-shaven sensibilities. Brooding so hard that he makes his Bruce Wayne seem like James Corden by comparison, Affleck delivers an implosive performance that renders Mr. Van Allen as a former golden boy who thought he built the perfect family, only to realize that he married the kind of woman you’re supposed to date before your wife. That’s how the movie tees things up, at least, as the early portions of “Deep Water” demonize Melinda so aggressively that she can only be understood through the lens of such retrograde Barstool logic. De Armas’ sultry performance doubles down on that take, allowing Melinda to go full succubus right out of the gate so that she can reel it back in and complicate her complicity once Vic starts getting blood on his hands.
As the film unfolds, however, Lyne’s cryptic approach begins to allow for more nuanced reads, even if viewers have to fill in most of the blanks for themselves (and even if basic details about who is doing what to whom become so obscured by sloppy writing and/or studio interference that the third act devolves into a campy riot of coincidences, car crashes, and a perfectly cast Tracy Letts screaming about the evils of auto-correct). Highsmith wouldn’t dream of hanging an erotic thriller on a good man and his “crazy” sexpot of a wife, and there’s no world in which the director of “Fatal Attraction” and “Unfaithful” would allow for such uneven distribution of blame in any story of a marriage gone bad.
The closer that “Deep Water” comes to boiling over (the hunky likes of Jacob Elordi and Finn Wittrock eventually getting stirred into the pot), the sillier it gets. We’re talking about de Armas cooking the most emasculating grilled cheese sandwich in cinematic history, and Affleck delivering a line like “the snails are not for eating” with enough deranged pathos to convince you that bad movies are better than good ones. But the sillier it gets, the more sensitively it portrays how it got there. In a vacuum, Vic and Melinda are unsolvable mysteries. On their own, it might seem like he’s impotent, or that she was born with an unslakable need to make him feel that way. Together, they reveal one another to be people who aren’t stunted by desire so much as they’re provoked by insecurity. Their marriage is a caricature of an all too common dilemma that seems to affect even the most beautiful of couples: How do you restore the stability of a marriage when you start to feel your partner getting bored? Can you fix the wound with sugar, or does it require a heavy pinch of salt?
Undying love is nice and all, but sometimes you need to feel like your partner is willing to kill for it too.
“Deep Water” will be available to stream on Hulu starting Friday, March 18.