There’s little psychological insight or meticulous plotting common to Patricia Highsmith’s novels
There’s a moment in the aptly named Deep Water, the semi-return to form for Adrian Lyne (Jacob’s Ladder, Fatal Attraction, Flashdance), the onetime master of the erotic thriller, where Melinda Van Allen (Ana de Armas), wealth-adjacent wife to amoral tech-bro billionaire Vic (Ben Affleck), explicitly recognizes his likely involvement in a string of disappearances and murders and fully embraces her role as the twisted object of her husband’s desire. It might not be the exalted romantic love of fiction or even reality, but for Melinda, an unreconstructed narcissist, it’s the next best thing: Vic’s willing to not just kill for her, but kill to keep her in the self-destructive relationship that defines their marriage.
That line — and the perverse thought behind that line — underpins at least one possible interpretation of the sadomasochistic relationship at the center of Deep Water, the third adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1957 novel and the first in English. Best known for writing the oft-adapted Ripley novels (the source material for one of Alfred Hitchcock’s minor classics, Strangers on a Train) and, more recently, the Oscar-nominated Carol, Highsmith mixed keen psychological insight into the complex, contradictory fears, anxieties, and desires inherent in romantic and platonic relationships and mid-20th-century masculinity with nimble, muscular prose and to make meticulously plotted page-turners that have enraptured readers for more than half a century.
There’s little psychological insight or meticulous plotting, however, to be found in Deep Water. Deliberately disregarding psychological realism, logical storytelling, or believable character motivations, the spry 81-year-old Lyne trains his still stylish eye on the moment-by-moment interactions between his two warring leads, the semi-palatial mansion that’s both their home and the site of multiple weekend parties where Vic and Melinda’s fraught relationship apparently disintegrates in public view. The murderously jealous Vic refuses to remove himself from proximity to his perpetually adulterous wife and she, in turn, deliberately flaunts her infidelities, a string of handsy male “friends” in full view of friends, acquaintances, and various hangers-on.
What originally starts as a murder-mystery with the disappearance of one man before the opening credits even begin—giving dark humor-prone Vic a chance to take responsibility for his death and scaring off one of Melinda’s interchangeable lovers, Joel Dash (Brendan C. Miller), a discount Brad Pitt clone—turns into an absurdist comedy. In quick succession, Joel’s departure leaves an open door for another potential lover, Charlie De Lisle (Jacob Elordi), a local pianist of tall stature and mediocre skill, and when Charlie, like the others before and after him, exits the frame, a third third lover and ex-boyfriend, Tony Cameron (Finn Wittrock), enters stage left, seemingly conspiring in his own potential demise.
And that doesn’t even include Vic’s own personal Greek chorus, Jonas Fernandez (Dash Mihok) and Grant (Lil Rel Howery), who have his back on important (or unimportant) matters, or the local writer, Don Wilson (Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts), who’s apparently the only individual within a hundred miles who suspects Vic in the otherwise suspicious disappearances and deaths of Melinda’s lovers. Everyone else, including an ineffectual, barely present police department, collectively shrugs their shoulders and moves on with their lives offscreen.
That ludicrousness extends to a third-act that, while not exactly going off the rails, drives at least one errant car off a conveniently placed cliff or a decidedly ambiguous resolution that trades the clear-cut ending of Highsmith’s novel for something entirely different, suggesting that Melinda, a supreme narcissist, and Vic, a possible sociopath, have found the perfect life partner in each other. It’s far from a tidy or even persuasive ending, but somehow feels right in the moment for Affleck and de Armas’s characters. At first bored and disinterested, blankly, superficially engaged with the world around him, Vic’s torturous awakening via carefully emphasized rising dialogue, reveals a man willing to do anything and everything to keep what he perceives as his and the materially comfortable, upper-middle-class life he’s manufactured for himself.
Deep Water will be available to stream on Friday, March 18th, via Hulu.