There’s a mildly macabre chill in the air of Adrian Lyne’s Deep Water keen on possessing the viewer in the same grip most erotic thrillers can accomplish within ten seconds. Less, if the story looks more familiar than at first glance. In one lens, it calls back the raw unpredictability of 2014’s Gone Girl. In another, it carries over the leitmotifs Lyne had popularized in his 1980s heyday, particularly the idea of love always coming with a price. Here, after two decades away from the director’s chair, very little is different, though he has adapted suitably with the times, taking a classic 1957 page-turner by Patricia Highsmith into a saucy, if not also middling, or lazy piece of fuming jealousy. As a newcomer to Lyne’s world, this is far from the most ideal introduction.
Vic Van Allen (Ben Affleck) is the face of that unchecked spite, a man of hobbies latching onto a dwindling sense of marital bliss with wife Melinda (Ana De Armas). The pair had been distant for a while, living their own lives, while still maintaining a unified front for young daughter Trixie (Grace Jenkins). Vic is conservative in his pursuits, Melinda the opposite. She’s a little too unafraid to show off her new one-night flings, such as her piano teacher Charlie (Jacob Elordi), or the laidback Joel (Brendan C. Miller). Such a free-spirited attitude pins Vic down into a sea of awkwardness, assessing the limits of what would be a normal open-ended relationship if Vic’s mind weren’t clouded by envy and murder. Close friend Grant (Lil Rel Howery) is always a little concerned with that darker side, often taken aback whenever Vic reveals he killed one of Melinda’s beaus. So too is part-time mystery writer Don (Tracy Letts), whose ear for a tawdry tale starts burning on both ends.
That suspicion ratchets the tension on a slowly elevating scale, with Lyne balancing gas and brake pedals, if only to prevent a sudden derailment of tonality. Working off a script penned by Zach Helm (Stranger than Fiction) and Sam Levinson (Euphoria), he’s a trifle overreaching, juggling multiple balls in one lengthy go, covering Melinda’s vixen-like flaunting and cat-like reflexes, Vic’s near-hesitation to pounce, and their day and night switches. In the morning, they’re looking to shield energetic Trixie from what occurs behind drawn shades. Seen as a curious sort with high aspirations and musical tastes ranging between nursery rhymes and Leo Sayer, her wide-eyed innocence slices through that tension coil her father pushes deep down.
Jenkins knows diffusion like the back of her hand, a performance mellowing out Affleck’s near one track, one-note mind. Shielding away from what’s going on might have its benefits as father seethes in a wild cat and mouse atmosphere. Affleck’s timidness with only fleeting scraps of carnal clarity makes him more of the mouse, opposed to de Armas’ crafty, oft-deviant feline. I could say regardless of his character opposite to Gone Girl’s Nick Dunne, his insipid attitude shows a certain level of restraint within the first half of Lyne’s workable plot. Regrettably, that weighs down the otherwise scintillating dynamic both leads appear to propagate. Minor quirks aside, there was little to be impressed by their on-screen magnetism.
Lyne is biting off more than he could chew, helming this potpourri of ideas, simmering only after enough tension builds halfway. Still, the prevalent mystery, and whatever secrets Vic is harboring, can’t turn that final suspenseful corner. Letts’s voice of authority and that of daughter Kelly (Kristen Connolly) do resharpen focus when most needed. Hearing Miller and Elordi’s perspectives benefit in a finite proportion for the slow burn. These extraneous factors from Lyne’s supporting cast show up a bit too late, however, as a persistently middling cycle of events prohibits even the smallest amount of deviation. Fake domestic bliss begets noncommittal inactivity, begets weird infatuations (particularly Vic and his farm of garden snails), begets narrowly dodged accusations. When motivated exactly right, Vic is quite able to kill, or at least disarm one of Melinda’s plus-ones. The purpose simply lost me before the logic, and that innate deception could catch up.
Bolstered by an often-apropos, never overshadowing Marco Beltrami (No Exit) soundtrack, Lyne shows how not to lose one’s creative knack after years of lurking in the shadows. For all its ticklish brushes with seduction and visible infidelity, its lack of seriousness couldn’t keep this venture from sinking below the surface. I imagine Lyne’s back catalog is a fascinating collective romp to observe, warm up towards, invest a weekend to delve. Deep Water is far from the best place to start on that, putting Affleck into another awkward scenario where making the other side comes only with pure luck. There’s just enough thematic oomph for occurrences to stay sensual, provocative, laughable, and a bit curious with where to wander next. It’ll be a while, all the same, before I’m ready to observe again. (C-; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
Deep Water streams on Hulu March 18; rated R for sexual content, nudity, language, and some violence; 115 minutes.