‘Deep Water’: The Erotic Thriller Isn’t Dead

The return of a master of the genre, they said. Maybe the erotic thriller isn’t dead after all, they said. Never mind that the release of the Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas thriller Deep Water — director Adrian Lyne’s first movie since Unfaithful 20 years ago — was repeatedly delayed. This wasn’t necessarily a bad omen, the reality of pandemic-era moviegoing being what it is. Even the fact of the movie’s same-day release in theaters and on Hulu feels appropriate. Erotic thrillers in their heyday were, after all, routine beneficiaries of the direct-to-video pipeline; the theatrical successes of iconic high-grossers, like Basic Instinct and Lyne’s own Fatal Attraction, obscure this fact.

If any genre should be thriving in the Netflix era, it’s the genre that a respectable adult might prefer to watch at home to mitigate the guilt of such guilty pleasures. The genre that lulls us into feeling like we’re cheating on “better” movies with so-called trash — and makes the infidelity forgivable. There are no ticket stubs in hell, only algorithms that promise not to leak our watch histories to the devil (and then do it anyway).

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I laughed more than I was supposed to, which has to count for something. Affleck smile-grimacing his way through an everyday rich guy/closet-psycho routine for two hours also counts for… something. De Armas, playing a maybe-unsuspecting fatale who sets a near-platoon of tall, handsome, bolts-for-brains men on the path to their senseless deaths, also counts for quite a bit. And Deep Water’s motivating bit of nonsense — a premise that insists we suspend our disbelief further out into the stratosphere with each passing scene — is almost riveting, for a little while, if only for its instability. The movie’s got just enough ambiguity to make you wonder if it knows what it’s doing. Then the last dreg of good will dies. And you’ve still got an hour-plus of movie left.

Deep Water was adapted by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson (Euphoria) from the under-read 1957 novel by Patricia Highsmith, the master behind Mr. Ripley. In the novel, at least, Vic (played onscreen by Affleck) and Melinda Van Allen (de Armas) test the electric fence of their relationship by agreeing to an open marriage. The movie’s first intervention is to insert more of a question mark into this basic framework.

Rather, it’s an issue of whether he actually agreed to any of this. There’s the fact that the charmless but likable-enough Vic doesn’t seem to have affairs of his own, only hobbies (for example, a garage full of well-fed snails; this is not a joke). A sprig of potential self-delusion, meanwhile, initially proves suspenseful. Good friends pull Vic aside with their “Do you think she…?” concern-trolling, fully knowing the answer, and Vic meets their caring inquiries with thumbs-up, all’s good, nothing-to-see-here reassurances.

Is he embarrassed of their open marriage, or is he that much of a nincompoop that he doesn’t know what’s up? Well, Melinda’s boyfriends keep disappearing; jump to your own conclusions. Vic is smart — that’s one of Deep Water’s more amusing inner tangles. He’s smart enough to have developed the tech that put the predator in “predator drone” — smart enough to retire early, rich-guy style. And self-assured enough to make Melinda feel inane, extraneous, unintelligent. When he says he’s attracted to women with brains, she takes it personally. When Melinda displays a keen taste for charismatic himbos, he takes it personally.