Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated R, 1 hour and 55 minutes
Directed by: Adrian Lyne
Like many features on director Adrian Lyne’s resume, DEEP WATER explores themes surrounding marital strife, infidelity, desire, deception, repression and obsession through a sultry, sexy lens. However, this time around, these ingredients and their delightfully bonkers resolution vary enough that the provocateur’s well-established, long-standing sentiments take on newer, nastier, deeper meanings. This adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel – made modern by screenwriters Zach Helm and Sam Levinson – is centered on a cuckolded husband whose uninhibited wife’s affairs lead the pair down a dark road. More eviscerating character-driven psychodrama than smutty erotic thriller, it’s a tantalizing, scintillating and inspired entry in the sub-genre.
Wealthy Vic (Ben Affleck) and Melinda Van Allen (Ana de Armas) aren’t exactly the perfect portrait of love and happiness. To outsiders, their marriage is on the rocks. Years of emotional withholding by Vic has caused Melinda to resort to warfare, seeking the company of younger, handsome men who value her bubbly personality and sexual advances. Although her promiscuity wags the tongues of townsfolk, including Vic’s friends Jonas (Dash Mihok) and Grant (Lil Rel Howery), her hubby remains unbothered, deliberately holding back so she doesn’t see him hurt. Still, this cruel, callous power struggle seemingly works, but will soon be challenged.
After Vic jokes about killing one of Melinda’s former paramours – a tale he tells to scare off her dense boy-toy Joel (Brad Pitt-doppelganger Brendan Miller) – he becomes the talk of the carpool lane and the playground. This hits home once their cute-as-a-button 6-year-old daughter Trixie (Grace Jenkins) confronts him. This awakening causes Vic to realize his wife’s impulsive, destructive behavior won’t soon stop. He begins fixating on her adultery, specifically her illicit trysts with new beau Charles de Lisle (Jacob Elordi). But after Charles turns up drowned in their pal’s pool and ex-boyfriend Tony Cameron (Finn Wittrock) goes missing, Vic becomes the prime suspect.
Interestingly, the filmmakers don’t ask the audience to feel empathy or sympathy towards their protagonists – at least not at the beginning. It’s not until the end where we see a more complete picture of the love that hangs precariously in the balance, or rather in limbo. This love-story angle parallels that of PHANTOM THREAD, in which two toxic people can’t survive without feeding and poisoning one another in their own specialized ways. Helm and Levinson pluck metaphors from Highsmith’s text – everything from Vic’s study of snails (how they face insurmountable odds just to be together) to the symbolism of the town’s gorge foreshadowed in the home’s layout, as a place of chasm-like division. Ties between sex and death are also masterfully threaded throughout. Updating Vic to be a disillusioned dreamer – an unwitting wartime profiteer – betrayed by his own life-saving invention adds layers to the character and, later, provides hefty motivation for his actions that further destabilize his world.
Affleck works this material with powerful precision and pathos. He adds depth and dimension to the character during less cohesive moments. His physicality and demeanor are nuanced, specifically showcased within his character’s descent into despair and darkness. His hunched, pensive posture and silhouette at times suggest a mix of danger and sorrow lurking below his surface. He also has cute chemistry with precocious powerhouse Jenkins, as seen in their sing-a-long to Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” (a scene so good, it’s used twice). De Armas plunges deep into the facets of her character’s loneliness and desperation, using booze and smiles to overcompensate for what’s missing. She adeptly walks a fine line between seductive and sad, all while exuding dominance. Tracey Letts, a talented actor and award-winning playwright, gives a cartoonish, scene-stealing performance, hijacking the final 10 minutes, leaving us marveling (and howling) at the absurdity we just witnessed.
Lyne, whose vision remains as strong as ever, delivers a steamy piece of tawdry gloss for us, the voyeurs peering into this couple’s dysfunction. Setting the film in New Orleans adds texture, heat and flavor, and a sense of Southern, small-town snark. Eigil Bryld’s polished cinematography illuminates the characters’ psyches and inner struggles without being overbearing or hyper-stylized. Editors Andrew Mondshein and Tim Squyres turn in strong work, sewing together the evocative and the provocative. Their steadied handiwork, full of gusto and gumption, ushers us through the climactic third act when the film, in a scattered hurry to end itself, goes absolutely berserk – the kind of bananas only the cheesiest ‘90s thrillers execute masterfully.
From its barbed lines of dialogue, both incisive and wounding, to its sharp dissertation and dissection of marital discord, it’s impossible to ignore the GONE GIRL-esque influences that echo within this narrative. All this couple does is hurt each other – a concluding line made prominent, powerful and poignant by Affleck in Fincher and Flynn’s aforementioned film. It’s one that doubles as its own applied critique of Lyne’s feature. And, while these films ask different questions about the nature and nurturing of deceit and distrust, they are answered similarly: “That’s marriage.”
Grade: 4 out of 5
DEEP WATER begins streaming on Hulu on March 18.