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Deep Water Blows Believability with Ben Affleck

Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Goodness gracious, one has to think that there’s a sizing-up point when two illicit lovers decide to initiate an affair to cuckold a married man, both in real-life or fictionalized situations. Somewhere, even the dimmest and horniest man has to pause and measure what kind of husband he is likely hoodwinking. A side-piece contender could see a scrawny dweeb and think they have a chance. Know who you are cuckolding. Call this a required step of due diligence, one that is idiotically ignored and preposterous for any believability in Deep Water.

90% of straight men would give a fetching woman who looked like Ana de Armas as Melinda Van Allen in Deep Water a long, hard look. The other 10% would give her two. Give her lavish threads, an animalistic sex drive, and an alcohol-fueled thirst and weak blue-balled men will swoon by the hundreds. Even so, any determined cheater participant needs to invoke the aforementioned due diligence.

A woman rests her head on her hands while sitting on stairs,
Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

In Deep Water, numskull suitors see their intended sexual conquest married to the beefy 215-pound Ben Affleck who fills a 44-inch chest and casts a 6’2” brick sh*thouse shadow with a piercing stare that could drill through sternums and souls. He’s not going to step aside. He’s going to kick your ass. If you persist, he’ll probably straight up murder you and skip the ass-kicking. As the cool kids say, “f–k around and find out.”

The unintentionally hilarious thing about this absent risk aversion in Deep Water is that three (yes, three) different men lust into the promiscuous Melinda Van Allen’s embrace, look at Ben’s Vic Van Allen, and barely bat an eye. That’s stupid, even by stupid’s standards, no matter how amazing Melinda appears to be. Even more hilarious is that all three of them go a step further and actually meet Vic in-person. In these encounters, often happening during the veneer of a cordial meal, Mr. Van Allen is not granting open relationship access and casually brags about murdering another man who the local authorities report is still missing. Come on, kid. Don’t f–k around. Don’t find out.

Only one man of the three in Deep Water properly sh-ts themselves and breaks it off with Melinda. Harmoniously, he’s also the only one that lives to tell the tale. What should have been the walkaway moment for the men is the ship-jumping point for the audience with the entire movie.

A man speaks to a private investigator.
Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

From their first introductions, Melinda and Vic orbit each other in their Louisiana country house with the daughter they share in a frigid fashion and with different energies. She is the intoxicated free spirit fixture at social gatherings with an indifference that’s easy to rankle. Those loud traits appear to strain Vic, who plays the more reserved and dignified type as a retired tech inventor riding his mountain bike and farming snails in his garage. There is no doting in either direction. Only momentary urges occasionally bring them close from their contrasting concerns and targeted shame for each other.

When Melinda longs for more passion, she looks elsewhere for easy lays thinking infidelity will trigger a liberating divorce from Vic. Melinda lashes out with a great line in an early scene to say, “If you were married to anyone else, you’d be so f–king bored you’d kill yourself.” That’s true and certainly one exit strategy on the table with divorce. No matter the increasing and festering jealousy, Vic cannot shake her irresistibility. He has to have her and thinks he can intellectually bully her to make her listen. Answering similar demands later, when Melinda is asked by Vic if she’s frightened of him, her sharp reply is “No, because I’m the thing you killed for.” A testy exchange like that is as intriguing as Deep Water gets with its supposed games.

Patricia Highsmith’s novel was built on plausible nerves that its movie adaptation is not constructed to match. The danger accompanying the success or failure of both the affairs and the murders in Deep Water needs to be convincing. Only half of that, the Affleck portion of dominance, is conclusive. Since affairs have to come before any homicidal acts of retribution, in chicken-before-the-egg fashion, any thrills are shattered before they ever form.

A man smirks at an adversary off-screen.
Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Unfortunately, casting Ben Affleck was a mistake. The 16-year age gap between Ana de Armas and Affleck as the central married couple is not part of the misstep. Playing in the May-December swamp with two very good looking people was easy and their brief off-screen tabloid relationship supports that. The issue is, again, that believability of surrounding characters viewing him as a pushover incapable of murder when it’s as clear as day. He’s not slight enough to make you doubt.

Affleck does his underplaying best with the material written by Stranger than Fiction screenwriter Zach Helm and red-hot Euphoria showrunner Sam Levinson. Physically, he will lurch with threat, clench his teeth with disdain, and stare those aforementioned holes through souls instead of bursting with roaring madness, but the actor’s pretended meek presence doesn’t for a second mask any of that potential killer instinct. Twists arrive with very little suspense, thanks to that obviousness of mental and physical superiority.

At the surface level, Ana de Armas is, of course, an extremely worthy object of desire. However, she’s too often muted from really challenging Affleck with emotional pushback. Their arguments should rattle the movie and viewer to the core to sell the psychology and they don’t. That’s surprising considering Levinson’s presence in the writing room and his track record with strong female characters.

Outside of the lead spouses, no supporting performer adds any dramatic significance. The three wannabe studs (Ambulance’s Brendan Miller, Jacob Elordi of The Kissing Booth series, and Finn Whitrock of The Big Short) are interchangeable and underwritten himbos. Dash Mihok and Lil Rel Howery are stock buddy types there to act puzzled or push meaningless small talk, and the heft that should come with writer/actor Tracy Letts is reduced to him playing a dithering boob of himself.

There is very little spark behind the camera to aid in getting any on-screen. Deep Water was poised to be the grand return of trailblazing erotic thriller director Adrian Lyne to the genre built with some of his cornerstones like Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, and 9 ½ Weeks. With no modern punch, his sluggishness shows. Composer Marco Beltrami, known for tension and injections of experimental instrumentation, mails in one of the most basic and uneventful scores of recent memory. When done right (see Bernard Herrmann for Psycho or Jerry Goldsmith with Basic Instinct), music can be an extra jolt of exhilaration. Tone on that level is woefully missing in Deep Water.

The cold hearts, jealous places, and mental battles of Deep Water slip into near despondency without a resonating grip. When it’s all said and done, the movie is not violent enough for HBO, not sexy enough for old school Cinemax, not polished enough for a major studio release, and not shocking enough for Netflix’s water cooler buzz desire to ensure a subscriber spike. That’s an embarrassing end result of mediocrity.

As sad as it may be to ponder and then admit, titillation has changed in the two decades since Adrian Lyne’s last film Unfaithful. What’s tame and what’s tawdry, especially with women dangled as potential victims in crimes of passion, has evolved. At the same time, people and movies cannot get away with what they used to, which very likely led to the massive change of this movie’s ending compared to Highsmith’s original book. The sanitization and ambiguous silliness of that final swerve is a slap in the face to the source novel and the proud pulpy strength of the erotic thriller genre.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved and Banana Meter-approved film critic writing here on 25YL Media and his own website Every Movie Has a Lesson. He is also one of the hosts of the 25YL-backed Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network. As a school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Hollywood Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society, Internet Film Critics Society, Independent Film Critics of America, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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