It’s hard to overstate how important Adrian Lyne was in bringing a libidinous edge to mainstream moviemaking in the 1980s. Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat may have codified onscreen sex (not to mention the “erotic thriller” template) for normies in 1981, but Lyne’s Flashdance, 9 ½ Weeks, and Fatal Attraction were important cultural flash points that not only attracted audiences in droves but inspired a host of imitators of their grown-up content and muscular visual language. Deep Water comes 20 years after his previous work, the soapy, acclaimed Unfaithful, and it shepherds a sadly ailing cinematic tradition forward with the same luminous style, a welcome sensuality, and in an era in which pornography is more widely available than ever before, an astute bit of camp.
An adaptation of the 1957 novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, Lyne’s latest revisits some of the erotic highlights from those earlier works and updates them in a more appropriate (and egalitarian) context. Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, both terrific in their roles, play the couple around whom the film’s meditation on modern sexual relationships revolves, while Lyne proves not only that he can film hot scenes unlike almost anyone in the business, but inject them with a psychological sophistication that complicates their (and our) postcoital bliss.
Affleck and de Armas, whose reported fling during production (whether true or not) gives their scenes an additional charge, play Vic and Melinda Van Allen. Vic is a man of leisure after retiring early from inventing a microchip that allows military drones to execute their targets remotely, and Melinda is his philandering wife. Although any sort of formal arrangement between them goes unspoken, they have settled into an unconventional routine to keep their marriage interesting, if not always functional: she takes a series of lovers while he navigates simultaneous pangs of jealousy and attraction from a spectator’s distance.
Vic’s friends Nash (Lil Rel Howery), Evelyn (Jade Fernandez), and Arthur (Dash Mihok) warn him about her cheating, but he waves it off, even as he witnesses the evidence firsthand. But when Vic jokes with Joel (Brendan Miller), one of Melinda’s current lovers, about killing one of his predecessors, some of the people in their social circle begin to speculate about whether or not Vic actually committed murder.
Somewhat predictably, Vic and Melinda’s cycle of adultery, covetousness and reconciliation escalates as they become more tethered to the underpinnings of the dynamic they have created. Vic becomes increasingly desperate to keep Melinda to and for himself, while Melinda yearns for the freedom and irresponsibility of casual sex. But after another of Melinda’s lovers dies at a party that she and Vic are attending, she starts to wonder if there’s some truth to his gallows-humor joke about her late friend. Before long, they become locked in a volatile battle of wills that sometimes subsides into more cheerful domesticity and other times prompts threats of divorce and retaliation, leaving the couple to decide if this arrangement is a salve to stave off boredom in their marriage or a time bomb threatening to blow it up.
The superficial question to be answered in a film like this, rare as they are these days, is whether or not what these two people (and their potential outside partners) are doing is sexy — and it is. Lyne doesn’t shoot the sex scenes in smoke-filled hallways set to saxophone solos like he once did, but he vividly captures the clumsy urgency of attraction and the more granular gestures that connect and entice lovers. What’s actually more important in Deep Water is not that we find their relationship sexy but whether or not we understand it, and for better or worse, the filmmaker communicates each character’s perspective clearly and compellingly. Lyne’s latest evokes David Cronenberg’s Crash and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, the latter less explicit than the former, but the key to unlocking both is whether or not you can accept that this dynamic, dysfunctional, fucked-up or distasteful as it may be, works for these characters.
Notwithstanding the rise of the cuckold as a cultural (and pornographic) trope, it at least seems like most relationships where there is so much secrecy and jealousy involved could not weather the back and forth that Vic and Melinda endure; even though parenting their daughter Trixie (Grace Jenkins) ostensibly gives them a reason to “work things out” at the end of each affair, you’d think everything that leads up to that resolution would cause much more damage than papered-over apologies could repair. But just like a man dressing up as a bat, this is a conceit you sort of have to just accept without bringing to it your own choices or judgment. Lyne, working from a script by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson, at the very least makes us get what works about it for each of them.
What’s kind of great about the film is the way not only their relationship escalates, but how it does so in a small, tight-knit community that both feels like a clichéd version of local pals and busybodies, and also somewhat accurately follows the speculation that might emerge after a series of deaths linked (whether or not they’re actually related) to a marriage that many people are aware is troubled. Consequently, audiences watch Vic and Melinda battle each other, and themselves, and those viewers are then tasked with the responsibility of deciding what they can relate to — the jealousy, forgiveness, suspicion, empathy, and consternation as they watch two characters that are anything but conventionally appealing.
Ultimately, given that escalation it’s pretty tough not to watch this film at least a little bit through a campy filter (and that’s putting it mildly); Tracy Letts’ turn as a self-important novelist and amateur sleuth who begins investigating Vic lends the cat-and-mouse game between Melinda and her husband a delightful if occasionally silly edge, more Tom and Jerry than predator and prey. But where Lyne’s ’80s and ’90s films functioned as sexy outliers, cautionary tales or commentaries on zeitgeist issues, this one uniquely seems at least interested in examining whether or not a relationship like this can endure, much less exist.
That feels especially true at a moment when the very notion of a conventional relationship is kind of outdated; what works for the two (or more) people in the situation is what matters, not how that dynamic appears to the individuals and the world around them. Of course, that may also make the marriage depicted here an outlier or a cautionary tale. As for Lyne and his legacy, don’t call Deep Water a comeback: whether you’re turned on, thinking hard or trying not to laugh, he’s just as good at getting people talking about sex—and everything around it—as he ever was. Let the pillow talk begin.