Around halfway through, as the ambiguity of the early scenes is lost, and we get a clearer sense of what exactly is happening, Deep Water also becomes more predictable, and refuses to gather steam as a thriller.
Anyone familiar with the dark and caustic writings of Patricia Highsmith will know that her work did not show a high regard for human nature – or for sacred human institutions like marriage.
Across a range of short stories, Highsmith depicted marriage as a form of self-cannibalising in which personalities are swallowed up, laying bare the many ways in which spouses can wound, dominate or play games with each other [while also masochistically inflicting hurt on themselves].
For instance, in the chilling When the Fleet was in at Mobile, a diffident woman [who might be an unreliable protagonist] escapes her bullying husband after administering him a dose of chloroform – but finds that it is not so easy to return to a happy past. Even in the more lighthearted Highsmith stories about husbands and wives, you learn not to bat an eyelid when you come across a passage like this: “Sarah’s idea was to kill Sylvester with good food, with kindness, with wifely duty.” [That is from The Fully Licensed Whore, or The Wife.] Or this from The Breeder, where a man finds himself with 17 children after barely a decade of marriage: “He was just sane enough to realise that his mind, so to speak, was gone. He was aware that he didn’t want to go back to work, didn’t want to do anything.”
I have not read Highsmith’s 1957 novel Deep Water, but I had no trouble identifying her touch in the broad outlines of the new film by that name – even if the story has been modernised and altered. [In an early scene, an oddball mix of the very new and the very quaint, a little girl asks Alexa to play ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm.’]
Deep Water centres on the relationship between Vic [Ben Affleck] and Melinda [Ana de Armas], with their interactions making it obvious [even for those who go in knowing nothing about the plot] that there is something off, or unconventional, about their marriage. On the one hand, they have been together for years, they have a child, the family appears stable [they even get a puppy!], and they seem to socialise often with a common group of friends.
But Vic and Melinda do not sleep in the same room, and when he sees her making out with a young man at a party, it is not presented as a shocking betrayal that will blow their relationship apart: Vic is disturbed but not exactly surprised, and he deals with the situation in his own private way – by telling the young man, pleasantly, that he had killed another of Melinda’s special “friends.”
This little episode sets the plot in motion, paving the way for the tension that arises when the body of that missing friend turns up a while later. More deaths follow. It is hard to really talk about specifics, so I will be vague and say that our ideas about Vic – what he is and is not capable of doing – change as the story progresses [perhaps some of it comes as a surprise to him too].
While many of Highsmith’s writings [not just her famous Ripley novels] have been adapted for the screen, it is not the case that the adaptations are always faithful: arguably the most well-known film based on a Highsmith book, Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train , made a crucial alteration in the plot of the book, allowing the leading man to retain his moral compass in keeping with the pressures of studio-era Hollywood. So Deep Water should not be judged on how closely it adheres to its source material.
But this point has to be made: by moving the story to the present day, the film inevitably changes the way we look at its characters and their situation. What was transgressive, dangerous or at least very uncommon in small-town America in the 1950s – an open marriage and its effect on a community – is much less so today, and this blunts the edge of the main situation. What director Adrian Lyne and his writers Zach Helm and Sam Levinson seem to have done to compensate for this is to make the Vic-Melinda relationship more sexually charged, with much of that current coming from the arrangement between them: Vic is often an inexpressive, unemotional fellow [which partly accounts for Melinda’s frustrations], but he is most turned on by his wife, becomes most alive and passionate, when he sees or imagines her in sexual situations with other men.
So this is a thriller that is largely about male jealousy and what it might lead to. In keeping with that focus, the perspective we get throughout is Vic’s: the things he sees or hears, or thinks about. Even while living in the same house, he often watches Melinda like a stalker, spying on her – while she speaks on the phone or dances with someone – through stairways and halls and corridors. He is not a “normal” husband, he says more than once – he does not want to control her. But what is he doing exactly? What game are they playing? The real workings of their relationship [how they fell in love in the first place, how things changed over time] never quite become clear. And this is largely because we do not get Melinda’s untrammelled point of view – we might conjecture that she does what she does because she is deeply in love with Vic, and wants to stoke his hidden fires, but there is not enough evidence of this.
The result is an uneven, oddly paced film that feels like some connecting scenes mysteriously went missing in the editing room. It has a couple of funny moments early on, and other promising touches: for instance, the snails that Vic is breeding and seems to be obsessed with. [Snails were a Patricia Highsmith obsession too, they appear in many of her stories, including the horror stories. And they seem to fit this tale for another reason: the creatures have incredibly fluid sex lives, being hermaphrodites with both male and female reproductive organs.] But the scenes where the protagonists banter, or fight, are not anywhere near as electric as they might have been, and one key character – a writer who seems to suspect Vic of very dark things and see this situation as material for a new novel – never quite makes sense. [By the climax, he comes across as unintentionally funny.]
Most of all – and this may be the cardinal sin given that it is directed by Lyne, whose stock in trade has been middlebrow erotic thrillers like Fatal Attraction, 9 ½ Weeks, Unfaithful, and Indecent Proposal – this is not a particularly sexy film. And this despite the presence of Ana de Armas, who manages to be both sensuous [even while she is presented to us through Vic’s controlling, insecure gaze], and a basically sympathetic, melancholy figure. If she had been given more screen time, if we had a clearer sense of what Melinda feels about her situation and what exactly is at stake for her, this may have been a better film all around.