Patricia Highsmith’s novel Deep Water is generally read as a queer creator’s vicious skewering of the complacency, loathing and deception of heterosexual marriage. Novelist Gillian Flynn, a Highsmith fan, said the book exposed the “in your face warfare between husband and wife.”
The pallid film adaptation, in contrast, skewers and exposes very little. Rather, the movie is a confused validation of traditional relationships. In Lynn’s view, it turns out, marriage can be happy, as long as you’re willing to kill for it.
Some spoilers below, because this film should be spoiled.
Deep Water’s central couple is wealthy retired tech genius Vic (Ben Affleck) and his wife Melinda (Ana da Armas). Melinda makes little attempt to hide her serial infidelities, but the two stay together for the sake of their daughter, Trixie (Grace Jenkins.) Vic grows increasingly jealous, however, and eventually starts murdering Melinda’s paramours. He drowns one in a pool and then bashes another’s brain in with a rock before sinking him in a river.
Director Adrian Lyne of Fatal Attraction fame is certainly familiar with his genre. He knows erotic psychological thrillers are supposed to offer sexual tension, psychological depth, and suspense thrills. Bafflingly, though, he somehow chooses to deny viewers all three.
Affleck and Armas started dating after they met on set, but virtually none of that spark makes it onto the camera. Affleck is a slab where flirtatious banter goes to die. Brief scenes of implied oral or masturbation or bedroom grunting have an air of obligation, like everyone involved was checking off a list.
The lack of heat is inextricable from lack of motivation and suspense. Affleck oozes, not menace, but jocular boredom. J.K. Simmons could have pulled off the “ha ha I killed him, no I didn’t, but I did” threat scene, or made the fascination with snails creepy. But Affleck has no oomph or menace behind his bluster. He’s about as intimidating as a chair.
Usually, in a psychological thriller, the run time is used to plumb depths of depravity, pathology, and violence. You start out not understanding the characters, and you come to understand them all too well.
But in Deep Water, you never learn much beyond what you know at the start. Melinda suggests once or twice that Vic gets off on being humiliated, and likes watching her with other men. But the script doesn’t pursue it and Affleck doesn’t have the chops to convey that subtlety without textual support. Similarly, there are hints that Vic might be a kind of tech bro Rashkolnikov, who prides himself on being smart enough to get away with murder. Again, though, there’s no follow-through.
Instead, you just are left with what you knew at the start. Melinda cheats. Vic is jealous. They stay together for the kid. More, their love is treated as true and sincere and largely to the side of the cheating and the murder. There are a lot of scenes of both of them interacting happily and lovingly with their daughter; their extremely messed up marriage seems to have, improbably, no effect on her happiness or welfare.
Domesticity in the film is great; the problem is simply that Melinda isn’t sufficiently committed. In this context, Vic’s murder spree isn’t a deviant evil. It’s an effort to bring the family together by reining in Melinda and eliminating the men she keeps straying with. In the novel, Vic kills Melinda at the end. In the film, she decides to recommit to the marriage, and they apparently live happily ever after. Love and matrimony aren’t a thin veneer over patriarchal rage for control and blood. Instead, blood is what you have to wade through in order to get to the true swimming pool of love and matrimony.
At one point in the film, after she realizes he’s a murderer, Melinda says that she is not afraid of Vic. Yes, she knows he killed a man, but, she says, he killed out of love for her, so she’s safe. In real life, of course, violent men who think they are entitled to women’s bodies and affection will very often murder them. A psychological thriller about a dangerous, abusive, jealous man should know that much. Deep Water, though, seems determined to know nothing, and to bore us while doing so.
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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.