For some, a significant other’s loving comes easy. They have the other person messed up because it used to be hard to see. And now, a love flourishes for a happy couple. But the inverse of all of that is the same, especially when an empty love is so painful to see that it brings the couple to emotional and physical exhaustion. And Adrian Lyne’s film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s “Deep Water” explores a loveless marriage where the couple plays dangerous mind games with each other when they cannot come to terms with the inevitable collapse of their marriage. While the film itself isn’t wholly original, there is a dangerous spark from its leads, Ben Affleck and Ana De Armas, that draws its audience into its orbit and doesn’t let go. And even with its flaws, we find ourselves deeply engrossed in a toxic marriage that serves as entertainment and a cautionary tale.
The erotic thriller centers on trust fund kid Vic and his beautiful and very enigmatic wife Melinda Van Allen (Ben Affleck and Ana De Armas), who are in a loveless marriage. In an attempt to salvage what they have, the two engage in what appears to be an open relationship that allows Melinda to sleep with any man she chooses as long as she doesn’t desert the family. But as they continue to play dangerous mind games with each other, they soon find those around them start dying.
The “Deep Water’s” original marking played it smart so as not to reveal any of the significant spoilers by only showing footage of the difficult marriage and the apparent tension that leads to its inevitable breakdown. A breakdown that can only end in an ugly manner. Of course, since “Deep Water” is based on preexisting material, readers already know its ending. But since I never read the original, I have no way of telling if there are any differences or if the film follows the book to the letter. However, I am now intrigued to see if the book portrays Vic as a cuckold. But the film is so much more to be than just two disillusioned people playing mind games. There’s also a whodunit twist that keeps us fully engaged and curious to see whether or not they could be capable of murder.
That’s because many of these murders happen off-screen or are spoken of by these characters. Between the mysterious disappearances or sudden deaths, Lyne, a master of the unhealthy couples craft, has us guessing for a good portion of the film. We are unsure of who to root for at the time, especially when Melinda openly flirts with her friends and other men, which gains the attention of Vic’s friends and prompts them to warn him of her actions. But we soon realize that Melinda’s illicit affair is a tactic used to finally bring out the true Vic, a man who hides his true intentions and emotions.
So with each friend Melinda passionately kisses or flirts with, it adds to Vic’s boiling point. But rather than take out his rage exorbitantly, he makes power moves befitting that of the alpha male. Vic takes slow assured steps forward to exert his dominance towards Joel (Brendon Miller), a handsome himbo who doesn’t have any idea what he’s getting into. As one of Melinda’s suitors, Joel doesn’t seem phased by Vic. However, once the two cross paths, Vic uses the publicity of the Martin McRae missing person’s case to drive Joel away because Martin was also the last of Melinda’s suitors to go missing. And any attempts to remedy the situation by having Melinda ask Vic to apologize fails as the latter intimidates Joel to the point where he can take the uber that was offered and not look back.
Playing off the did he or didn’t he questions, “Deep Water” centers more on how much pressure a person can take before they reach their boiling point. Though they agreed to this open marriage, neither one of them wanted to deal with the messiness of divorce. Doing so would be admitting defeat. The shallow but crafty Melinda pressures Vic with her advances towards other men, while the spoiled yet domineering Vic is more standoffish and cold. And with each new man that Melinda brings into their lives, they exit under mysterious circumstances after running into Vic.
And Vic takes each missing person’s case lightly. He even goes as far as to make jokes about it which has us question his trustworthiness. The murders that characters speak of or happen off-screen helps with the foreshadowing and deepen the mystery of Vic, who isn’t afraid to exert his physical, psychological, and even financial dominance over anyone who is a threat to him.
Characters like Lionel Washington (Tracy Letts) make loose connections between the mysterious death of Melinda’s piano tutor and another one of Melinda’s male suitors, to Vic. But Vic isn’t intimidated by any of Lionel’s accusations and proves it with a few scare tactics of his own, like using a drill as he steps closer to Lionel or showing the receipts of pricey private investigators. What’s more, Vic feigns off any suspicion with the use of perfect timing or his veiled threats woven into his dark charming personality.
Though we’d like to see a film have characters, we can root for and against, “Deep Water” works at making these characters unlikable. For Vic, he’s nothing more than a spoiled brat living off of his trust fund who uses his sullen sense of superiority against the likes of Melinda. Of course, friends see the guy as uncomplicated and unlikely to be the center of attention. This works well for a character who will need to ward off any suspicion. And it does, as many of these deaths happen off-screen. It’s just when he makes these veiled threats that we start to wonder whether or not the man is capable of murder.
But the unfortunate part of “Deep Water” is how the guessing game comes to an end. I suppose that has to do with how one of the players has had enough with the other. Of course, saying any more would delve into spoilers, but to be honest, I had hoped to see more of the two try to outwit each other.
Of course, we’d also like to think of Melinda as the helpless victim unable to escape the hell that she currently is in. But she is like a 1000 piece puzzle of a clear blue sky. It’s hard to get a read on her or understand her intentions. But it doesn’t help that the film’s only out for her is her extramarital affairs. Sure, one may say hand Vic the divorce papers as a means for an out, but that would take away from the thrill and suspense. Plus, the potential for dark and twisted mind games played would just be thrown out the window had the film just let one of the characters wave the white flag. All this does is prove that both sides are as dirty as they are guilty of taking part in a loveless marriage that should have been broken up a long time ago.
The chemistry between Affleck and De Armas is simply palpable. Unfortunately, these two characters are incapable of expressing an ounce of love to each other and have fallen out of it for reasons beyond us. They are now playing this game where they push each other and yet draw the other into their orbit in erotic ways. It’s a special connection, but we cannot take our eyes off of it because it is so hypnotic to watch this unhealthy and toxic relationship unravel.
“Deep Water’s” cold and dark color palettes also lean into the genre and the cold and dark themes, as well as play with the title itself. And just like the title, it plays as a metaphor for these characters who find themselves at the point of no return and unable to keep their heads above water.
Vic and Melinda’s question “do you love me” isn’t meant to be playful or be romantic to one another, it’s a means to see whether or not one of them is tired of living in a loveless marriage and living a life playing mind games. Despite these two unlikable characters, one can’t help but see how this dark and twisted game plays out and who ends up as the victor. One thing is for sure, the film sinks its teeth into you and doesn’t let go.
Deep Water premieres on Hulu Mar 18, 2022