The fashionability of film genres come and go, usually with a lot of hand-wringing as they rise and fall, but the longer they’ve been scarce the more likely we are to simply not speak of them, as if they never existed. Such is the state of the erotic thriller, a sordid subgenre whose heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s gave way to near nonexistence in the new millennium. Market flooding, the collapse of mid-budget filmmaking, and a whole host of other factors can be blamed for their absence, but no one cares to parse it out because our sexy stars never get in the mud to remind us what we’re missing.
That is, until everyone caught wind of the Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas vehicle Deep Water and lost their minds. Extenuating factors played a part in this; the pandemic delayed its release, we were bored at home, and there were gross invasions of privacy documenting their off-screen romance. The movie became the kind of intrigue-laden creature movie fans build up in an age of way too much information and way too much time, giving the genre anomaly even more expectations to meet.
Which is why the flat product is so deeply disappointing. Where are the shocks, the twists, the fun we so desperately wanted? For a subgenre that thrives on big moments and ridiculous developments, how did Deep Water turn out so bland?
Its source material may be partially to blame. The film is based on the 1957 novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, whose books have been the basis for several edge-of-your-seat films like Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Carol. Intrigue is the common thread between these, and while intrigue is present in Deep Water, it’s 1950s intrigue, too old-fashioned and inert to move us out of a slouch in 2022. Are we supposed to be curious about Affleck’s professionally and romantically insecure Vic? Don’t we not know that character inside out? And are we supposed to titter that Vic and de Armas’ Melinda have an uneasy agreement about her seeing other men? Is it not more tiresome than titillating that Vic agreed to an open marriage and then got so incensed seeing it he might be murdering her lovers?
There’s ways this story could’ve been updated to match our times, and screenwriters Zach Helm and Sam Levinson make key plot changes to avoid things that simply wouldn’t fly 65 years later. However, they do little to make us upset in the ways we want to be upset.
Director Adrian Lyne, who gave us one of the subgenre’s most infamous in Fatal Attraction, is equally as out of touch here, playing things far too small and serious instead of amping up the fun. I mean, this is a movie with the rights to Robyn’s Dancing On My Own and a scene where Affleck takes to the floor for revenge, and Lyne didn’t put these together for an epic shot of Affleck shaking his booty while staring down de Armas, her open wandering being returned in kind, with the lyrics “I’m giving it my all but I’m not the girl you’re taking home” blasting through the speakers. Was that not classy enough? For an erotic thriller???
Egregious misuse of Robyn aside, at least Lyne and the casting team knew what kind of actors we wanted to see slink and strut through salacious fun. De Armas has the easier job as the wife who spends the movie drinking and sleeping around, to which she adds the perfect amount of opaqueness. Is she toying with or disregarding Vic? And does the distinction matter when she knows either would drive him mad?
Affleck, unfortunately, navigates his role with less finesse, although it’s less his performance than his casting that causes issues. He’s been leaning into his smarmy side in recent years, giving electric performances in films like Gone Girl and The Last Duel that let him play different levels of despicable, so it’s hardly a stretch for us to believe Vicffleck might be murdering his wife’s lovers. Most of the film’s “thrills” comes from dangling this possibility over the viewer, but watching Affleck stomp around their pristine house with his bulky gait and sharp eyes hardly makes the idea of him drowning someone in a pool surprising.
The layers to this possibility ends up being more intriguing than the central mystery, but even those come from familiar places, including a direct ripoff of bookend shots that are far more chilling in its source than this replica. The only thing that really lands is its undercurrent of economic commentary, which stems from the entire story taking place within an enclave of obscene wealth. Vic doesn’t work because he built a computer chip used in drones (yikes), and much of the film takes place during a series of sloppy parties put on by their equally wealthy friends. Humorous asides during these bumbling events are genuinely funny, including the oblivious support Vic receives from Lil Rel Howery’s Nash, Tracy Lett’s pulp novelist suspicion, and the running joke about a hungover Melinda being driven up the wall by her daughter’s obsession with Old MacDonald Had a Farm.
These sparks are too few and far between, though, as Deep Water gets bogged down by familiar and pedantic elements of an erotic thriller that feels 65 years old. At least Euphoria fans get some Nate catharsis. Other than that, there’s not much to see here.
Release: available on Hulu March 18th
Director: Adrian Lyne
Writers: Zach Helm, Sam Levinson
Cast: Ben Affleck, Ana de Armas, Tracy Letts, Lil Rel Howery, Dash Mihok, Finn Wittrock, Kristen Connolly