After 20 years without a movie, Adrian Lyne is back with Deep Water. The director of such films as Flashdance, Jacob’s Ladder, and 9 ½ Weeks, Lyne made his name with stylized cinema that didn’t shy away from depictions of sex. And not just gentle lovemaking, either. Sex in Lyne’s films would often engage with the forbidden, the rough, or the startling. People have all kinds of sex, and Lyne seemed to want to acknowledge it wasn’t all gauzy and sweet.
A handful of obsessions typically defined his films. The draw of female sexuality and how it frightens men (and him in specific), the cracks in the seemingly comfortable relationships of the upper-middle class, men’s undeniable tendency towards violence, and how broken people can either couple up to improve one another or make each other significantly worse.
Given the timing of his return, now seems a great time to look back and rank his films, including where Deep Water falls among the oeuvre.
Back Roads (Honorable Mention)
An outlier in that Lyne wrote but did not direct this offering. It feels both unfair to rank it amongst his other works and unfair to ignore it given how it remains concerned with so many of the same themes of his other work. Helmed by lead actor Alex Pettyfer in his directorial debut, the film is not without promise, but ultimately Back Roads lacks both the style and immediacy of Lyne’s directed-work.
While not Lyne’s first feature, this is the breakthrough. Stylish, host to an Academy Award-winning original song and an Academy Award-nominated original song, it cemented Lyne amongst a clash of directors both recognized and derided for their incorporation of “MTV sensibilities” into their films.
Flashdance works when it focuses on bodies in motions. This especially applies to Jennifer Beals’ Alex Owens—the steel town girl of the song—and her dancing. However, you also see it in Sunny Johnson’s performance as Jeanie, the would-be figure skater turned exotic dancer. Even when the film places her at her lowest point, it maintains an appreciation for her physicality that, while certainly rooted in the male gaze, goes deeper as well.
When the movie stops being about an appreciation of dance and athleticism, though, Flashdance falls apart. As charismatic as Beals is, she can’t inject life into Alex’s “struggle” to decide if she should or shouldn’t audition for the local conservatory. Instead, the back and forth is stultifying, and the script never gives her an interesting or surprising reason for the ambivalence.
There’s no shame in not being able to realize a cinematic adaptation of Lolita. Like Kubrick before him, Lyne can’t seem to bring the source material to heel. But, unlike Kubrick, who gets the novel’s nasty humor streak right but can’t get his hands around its tragedy, Lyne’s version is rich in tragedy but can’t crack a joke to save its life.
In place of humor, Lyne gives his Lolita an overly romantic tone that is likely to be alienating to all but, well, the worst people. Jeremy Irons, as the pedophiliac intellectual Humber Humbert, and Dominique Swain, as the titular victim of exploitation, turn in strong performances, but the whole tone of the enterprise is disastrous.
With a premise so simple, it proved catnip to an entire generation-plus of sketch writers, Indecent Proposal is steeped in sleaze right out of the box. For those who have forgotten or are too young to know, Proposal concerns a married couple tempted towards disaster by a rich man’s money. John Gage (Robert Redford at the perfect union of his young beautiful and handsome craggly phases) takes a liking to Diana Murphy (Demi Moore) and offers her and her husband David (Woody Harrelson) a million dollars (about 1.96 million in today’s money) for a night alone with her.
When you get past the lurid premise, it’s essentially a story about how a couple survives (or doesn’t) the top two reasons relationships end: money and infidelity. Unfortunately, the million-dollar is so over the top the characters’ reactions to it, in turn, are pretty unrecognizable as human. It makes the film thoroughly good-bad, a delight for specific kinds of viewers. Unfortunately, the end is bland, pat, and unearned, undermining even that overblown tone.
Lyne’s first film in 20 years finds him seemingly still in tip-top form…for two-thirds of the movie. When the director’s on, he still captures men’s fear of women’s sexuality with an honest and titillating gaze. At 81 years old, that’s an impressive feat.
Vic (Ben Affleck) and Melinda (Ana de Armas) Van Allen are the sort of married people who have incredible lives, a great house, amazing friends, and yet always seem on the edge of hitting each other. It turns out Melinda is a serial cheater, and Vic pretends to either not notice or not care, depending on who he’s talking with about it. As Vic, Affleck vacillates between disinterest and seething. He makes excellent use of his size, and just this side of former matinee idol looks to seem both diminished and dangerous. De Armas, in return, gives Mrs. Van Allen a look that feels either inviting or cruel and often shades of both at once.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t just end 2/3 of the way through. Deep Water’s last 15 fifteen minutes or so are deeply silly and bizarrely rushed. It’s hard to remember the last time a movie so thoroughly got away from an experienced director.
Until then, however, the film is a disquieting look at some of the worst people you know living a life of endless parties with their friends and children on what seems to be every weekend evening. When you consider that, among the first five adults on the call sheet, the only one that’s somewhat likable appears to be a murderer, you have to admire a picture’s commitment to not artificially making anyone appealing.
9 1/2 Weeks
The thing everyone forgets about 9 ½ Weeks is that it is a gnarly, uncomfortable, and often brutal piece of filmmaking. Yes, Elizabeth McGraw (Kim Basinger) and John Gray (Mickey Rourke) use honey in a way that almost convinces viewers the sheer stickiness of that situation wouldn’t completely derail any chance of enjoyment. Yes, they do have sex in an alleyway hatchway under what appears to be a deluge while still somehow being two of the sexiest people on Earth.
But most of the movie is not really about that. It’s actually about how Gray dresses up cruel control and boundary violations as hot and how much it costs McGraw emotionally to fall for it repeatedly. It’s the kind of movie with well-shot, hot sex scenes inspired by a moment where one of the characters stabs another human being.
It’s well-done. Hence its place on the list. However, it is also arguably Lyne’s most nihilistic film. It’s his one effort—except perhaps the new Deep Waters—that makes his interest in man’s inherent cruelty and violence as clear as his ongoing obsession with what he considers the tantalizing dangerous of women’s sexuality.
Foxes is both Lyne’s first feature-length film and his most grounded. It is also, most interestingly, the most from women’s perspective—in this case, young women—next to Unfaithful. (Flashdance, despite centering on woman, never manages to give her much of an interior life.)
A talented cast, led by Jodie Foster, essays a few days in the life of four late teen friends who don’t know exactly what they want besides knowing it isn’t what they have right now. While not as unblinkingly pessimistic about “kids these days” as 1985’s The River’s Edge, they feel like cousin movies, capturing the same kind of generational despondency filtered through different regional and socioeconomic circumstances.
The screenwriter, Gerald Ayres, explained the intent to make it feel like a Louisa May Alcott story updated to match late 70s SoCal vibes. It doesn’t seem to deliver on that elevator pitch, but it is nonetheless a compelling piece of coming-of-age filmmaking.
While sex and sexuality still play heavily into Ladder, it’s the one film in his filmography where it is more of a background detail than a dominant theme. Essentially, like everything in the movie, it is a tool of punishment directed at Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) in what is either Hell or a disastrously lousy several months.
It’s arresting how well Lyne curdles his eye for beautiful and titillating imagery into horror. Doing everything in-camera, the director gives the film a surreal claustrophobic feeling. Jacob’s Ladder is an oppressive dream of a movie, one that forces viewers to experience Singer’s point of view with all its confusion and terror.
It’s unlikely for consideration alongside great Vietnam War films like Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, but it probably should be. Admittedly, its depictions of combat aren’t as insightful as those films, but Ladder’s understanding of what it meant to come home from Vietnam feels deeply insightful, even all these years later.
When Lyne departs this earthly realm, this is the film that will receive note in every one of the obituaries about him. It is the best merger of his obsessions and his signature 80s style. Moreover, it seemed to hit at just the right moment. Perhaps it is just because of Michael Douglas’s presence in both, but Fatal Attraction appears to be to marriage in the 80s what Wall Street was to business in the 80s.
Attraction is an exciting Rorschach/relic of the era. People’s feelings about Alex (Glenn Close), the “other woman,” vary wildly from considering her a sociopathic villain to viewing her as an example of cinema discounting and dismissing modern (for the time) feminism. Dan (Douglas), the philandering husband, often fulfills a similar role. Is he self-entitled toxic masculinity run amok or punished excessively for a single mistake?
It isn’t that erotic thrillers didn’t exist before Fatal Attraction nor that they ceased to exist after. However, it’s rare one movie jumpstarts a genre and defines its language for decades after. Attraction does that.
I wouldn’t describe any film as perfect. However, Unfaithful is one of the few that I’d describe as close to perfect as humanly possible.
It tells the tale of comfortably married couple Edward (Richard Gere) and Connie Sumner (Diane Lane) and how their easy monogamous routine is derailed by Connie’s attraction to Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez). Lane is as good as she’s ever been in a performance that feels personal and universal at once. Despite his (well-earned) reputation regarding women and sexuality, he knows how to step back and let the actor inhabit the character. He’s probably never been better served by that instinct than with Lane here.
Gere is also wonderfully good, drawing on his years as a heartthrob to invest Edward with a sense of fragile confidence. Edward knows he’s undeniably handsome and fit for his age. But he also knows he’s old enough now that he has to add that last caveat while Paul is still firmly in his years of just being “undeniably handsome and fit.”
Lyne dispenses with many of his visual tricks and motifs here as well. Unfaithful is still beautiful to look at, but, again, you can feel the director stepping out of the way to showcase the story above all else.
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Featured Image Credit: Hulu
Tim Steven is a sad tomato, Tim Stevens is three miles of bad road. He’s also a therapist, staff writer and social media manager for The Spool, and a freelance writer with publications like ComicsVerse, Marvel.com, CC Magazine, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. Feel free to find him @UnGajje on Twitter or in a realm of pure imagination.