In Deep Water, coming to Hulu this week, Ben Affleck’s wife won’t stop cuckolding him. Right in front of him, too, and seemingly with a new guy every week. Where does she find them? How does she find the time? She’s like the Tyler Durden of cuckoldry, setting up franchises while the rest of us are sleeping.
Ana De Armas plays Melinda, the wife, and sexy though she may be, you have to wonder what’s keeping her rich guy husband, Vic (Affleck), from leaving her. Sure, they have a daughter together, divorces are expensive, and custody battles can get ugly, but nothing is worth repeated humiliation like this, right?
Deep Water is a throwback in the best way. The tendency in 2022 would be to try to explain Melinda (assuming someone was bold enough to write her in the first place), to make the act of diagnosing why she is the way she is the whodunnit propelling the narrative — the old “trauma plot,” as it has come to be known in this age of ubiquitous armchair psychiatry. Deep Water, adapted from author Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley and a million others) and directed by Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal) — with a script adapted by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson — comes from the oldest of old hands at the “psychological erotic thriller” genre, and it shows.
To explain Melinda would be to soften her, to apologize for her. Far more interesting to focus on the dynamic between Melinda and Vic than on what made them this way. Sure, we get the occasional anecdotes about them, like that Melinda was kicked out of many different schools growing up, and that Vic invented a computer chip for use in drone warfare, but the central focus of Deep Water is on the tension between them. Which is to say, on what they actually do to get over on one another. If indeed that’s what they’re doing. What are they doing? What is their deal?
Neither of them are “likable,” in the traditional sense, more deliciously despicable. It’s always refreshing when filmmakers relegate the old “someone to root for” storytelling canard to the shitcan where it properly belongs. One of the most salient features of Deep Water is that it’s weird. It chucks dull, “relatable” situations out the window doing 90 on the way to provocative weirdness. Every new wrinkle creates a new angle for your brain to try to square with what we already know. Vic rides mountain bikes. Is that relevant? What about the fact that Vic raises snails? Does being a snailraiser predispose one to cuckolding, or is it some clue as to his motives? Maybe it’s a method of disposal?
In this age of frantically overplotted stories (partly due to the commercial reality of having to cram in as many heroes and villains as possible while fitting a movie into a broader outline; but I suspect also as a kind of screenwriter’s insecurity, undertaken with the belief that a confused viewer can’t be a bored one), Deep Water is judicious with what information it shares. And always in a way that feels purposeful. The key to a compelling story isn’t that it sounds like something you’ve heard before or that it’s true to your own experiences (zzzzz), it’s creating that bond between audience and storyteller, the faith that when the storyteller reveals a bit of information it’s going to be for a reason.
Vic boldly soldiers on, getting cuckolded again and again in ever more public situations in front of his extended friend group of New Orleans bon vivants, all the while fighting a one-man battle for his pride and peace of mind. Who’s going to break first? Where does Melinda keep finding new men? It’s a glorious plot contrivance that Vic is a retired rich guy and Melinda is his trophy wife — they literally have nothing better to do than play cat-and-mouse games with each other all day.
Deep Water is not a comedy by any means, but the dialogue is notably sharp, with multiple laugh-out-loud moments, and a solid supporting cast that includes Lil Rel Howery, Kristen Connolly, and Hall of Fame prick specialist Tracy Letts. Letts, whom you may remember from roles on Homeland or as Henry Ford II in Ford Vs. Ferrari, or from one of his one non-prick roles per decade, like as Saoirse Ronan’s dad in Lady Bird, is in fine form once again as Don Wilson, a pompous writer whose latest screenplay is a story about a writer like himself who has to solve a murder in his town. The character is not only hilariously dislikable, but key to understanding Deep Water; as, essentially, a parody of the kind of books in which a writer’s semi-autobiographical alter ego becomes the most important character in a story and ends up saving the day.
Without spoiling anything, Don’s big scene is reminiscent of Colin Farrell’s character’s in True Detective season two, expiring while waiting to send a text to his pudgy ginger son. Kudos to Zach Helm or Sam Levinson, surely this nugget wasn’t in Patricia Highsmith’s original 1957 novel.
After a movie full of twists and turns, thrills and chills, Deep Water ends on perhaps not its biggest narrative swing. It’s not quite the home run the rest of the movie promises, but it feels right enough, pleasingly symmetrical at least. All in all, it’s a story that gets its hooks in early and keeps stringing us along, without being exhaustively complicated.
A simple story that tracks, with aberrant characters and the boldness to be weird; when was the last time we got one of those? Deep Water is not only a refreshing throwback to the days of mid-budget thrillers aimed at adults, but perfect for at-home binging.