On any given week 30 years ago, among all the assorted comedies and action films at your local multiplex, you were guaranteed to find at least one erotic thriller. In the days before Hollywood went all in on endlessly renewable IP, one of American movies’ most bankable concepts was tossing two extremely attractive people together in a story with a bunch of violence and a little R-rated nudity. Today, mainstream American movies are about as sexless as they’ve ever been since the days of the Hays Code. When these sorts of films are made at all, they bypass theaters and go straight to streaming.

That’s what’s happened with Deep Water despite the fact that its two very attractive stars, Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, spent much of 2021 in a high-profile relationship, and the film was directed by Adrian Lyne, the man who made several of the most successful erotic thrillers including Fatal Attraction and 9 1/2 Weeks. Even with those built-in publicity hooks, Deep Water still sat on a shelf for over a year and a half and is now debuting on Hulu. The results made me nostalgic for a time when movies about adults in frank situations felt less like a novelty, even if Deep Water itself is not on par with Lyne’s most famous films.

Maybe the material’s a little too classy? Deep Water is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith about a troubled married couple. In the film, they are Vic (Affleck) and Melinda (de Armas), who live in New Orleans with their young daughter. As the film begins, Vic and Melinda are really only “together” in the legal sense; they share the same house, but not the same bedroom, and when they attend parties with their well-to-do friends, she tends to find a young man to flirt with — or do a lot more than flirt — while he mopes about from the fringes, leering at his wife’s drunken exploits with her latest beau.

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Snippets of dialogue make it clear that this behavior has been going on for some time. It also reveals that one of Melinda’s “friends” went missing not too long before the events of Deep Water, and that Vic likes to joke that he killed him. Then the missing guy’s dead body shows up, and Vic’s quips about bludgeoning someone to death with a hammer seem like less of a laughing matter. Still, none of his threats or intimidation seem to do anything to stop Melinda from continuing to carouse with a string of handsome men.

As Deep Water unfolds, and as Lyne reveals more of Vic and Melinda’s relationship, the less it seems like a simple case of a marriage that’s grown cold. There are hints that Melinda’s cheating is part of a game she plays with Vic, and that maybe he even gets off on it. Certainly, Affleck and de Armas have enough sex scenes in Deep Water to satisfy viewers who are curious about their onscreen connection following all their weirdly endearing paparazzi photos from the early days of the pandemic. And they certainly have chemistry together. It may be unconventional and slightly disturbing chemistry, but it’s there.

But it’s also one of the only things Deep Water really explores in any depth. Lyne shows us more and more of Vic and Melinda’s connection, but neither character really changes over the course of this sordid tale of jealousy and lust. Even as Affleck and de Armas pepper Deep Water with intimate moments, it otherwise remains a fairly repetitive cycle of Melinda cheating, Vic seething, a confrontation, and then everything starting over again. Vic made so much money selling computer chips to the military that he retired young; he doesn’t have anything to do except keep tabs on his wife’s scandalous two-timing and take care of his collection of snails — yes, live snails — which are mostly present so that Affleck can use them as a handy metaphor about monogamy or mankind’s animalistic nature.

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Vic is a solid role for Affleck. He’s already proven in Gone Girl that he’s good at playing emotionally opaque and potentially violent husbands, and Deep Water lets him flex many of the same muscles again. De Armas may be the single most beautiful woman working in Hollywood movies right now, but the part of Melinda does her less favors. Her character seems so oblivious to the warning signs around her, and so uninvested in her marriage. Later scenes do give us a little insight into Melinda’s ambiguous motivations but not enough; you keep waiting for some sort of reckoning that will make it clear exactly what is at stake between this husband and wife. But it never really happens.

Bad puns notwithstanding, there is something refreshing about Deep Water. If it had come out in 1992, there would have been so many other, better movies like it, that it would have looked really poor. In 2022, films of this ilk are so rare, that I can almost forgive the Deep Water’s faults just for reminding me that these sorts of stories can be told onscreen. Almost.

Additional Thoughts:

-Tracy Letts has a small but very amusing role as an author who is the only person in Vic’s social circle who thinks he might be a murderer. While the rest of Deep Water is played very seriously, Letts takes his character in a looser, campier direction — one that really would have suited the old Lyne films, which were more emotional rollercoasters than this one. He might not quite fit with the rest of Deep Water, but he livens it up anyway.

-Ben Affleck does not have a great track record when it comes to movies he makes with his real-life romantic partners. True, he starred in Shakespeare in Love with Gwyneth Paltrow, and that was a hit and an Oscar winner. But then he made a crummy Daredevil with future wife Jennifer Garner, and the disastrous one-two punch of Gigli and Jersey Girl with Jennifer Lopez. Deep Water is, at least, a lot better than those flops.

RATING: 5/10

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