From the outside, it sure seems like Deep Water is an erotic thriller. The newly streaming film was directed by one of the subgenre’s titans, Adrian Lyne, whose wildly successful Fatal Attraction spurred mainstream cinema’s love affair with the form for the next 10 or so years. (Lyne’s last movie, 2002’s Unfaithful, is arguably the last great American erotic thriller.) Deep Water is, like all erotic thrillers, a story of intrigue that intertwines sex with danger. Its stars, former tabloid couple Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, are hot, as are their careers. Even the movie’s name—taken from the 1957 Patricia Highsmith novel on which it is based—follows typical erotic thriller adjective-plus-noun convention (see: Basic Instinct, Wild Orchid, Final Analysis, Mortal Passions, and the aforementioned Fatal Attraction).
And yet, Deep Water is not particularly erotic and its thrills are mostly implied until its spiraling third act. The downside of making a movie about sex during a time when the cinematic sex scene has effectively died, and powers that be are at least nominally invested in actors’ on-set sensitivities regarding the amount of skin they’re willing to show and what they’re willing to do with it, is that there’s little actual sex to be had. In her book The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema, British film studies professor Linda Ruth Williams wrote that these films “operate with a constant awareness of masturbation as a prime audience response and index of the film’s success.” Meanwhile, the brief, clothed, even awkward glimpses of sex that we see occurring between spouses Vic (Affleck) and Melinda (de Armas) seem engineered to prevent its audience from masturbating. (Her: “Would you kiss my ass?” Him: “Yes.” Us: “Zzzzz.”) In its refusal to titillate via anything but implication, Deep Water recuses itself from its apparent subgenre and settles into something that is ultimately unsatisfying, like petting that never gets around to being heavy. What the ‘90s erotic thriller was to hardcore pornography, Deep Water is to the ‘90s erotic thriller: an echo of something way more stimulating.
It’s not that Deep Water isn’t lurid—this, after all, is a movie about less-than-ethical nonmonogamy—it’s that it is too vague in its presentation. I suppose its restraint could be an attempt to keep the movie from qualifying as unadulterated trash; “This is a class joint,” Lyne seems to be telling us with each suggestion of the sex and/or violence that happens on or off screen. But a little more trashiness could have made things a lot more fun. Melinda seems to have a perpetual hall pass from her husband…but the parameters of what she’s permitted are never quite spelled out, to the great detriment of the plot. Without a sense of the rules in play, the movie is rudderless. Melinda runs through guys like a career Grindr-er, but is she just a flirt? Are the young, hot men she takes a liking to merely friends that she grinds on and talks to this closely, or is she actually fucking them in full view of her husband and friends?
Not even Vic seems to know. He (maybe) jokes about killing one of these “friends” of Melinda’s who went missing to another, and when yet another (played by Euphoria’s Jacob Elordi) winds up dead in a pool during a party attended by the married couple and their friends, Vic is unable to tell a cop whether the dead guy and his wife had a sexual relationship. “I don’t know. I don’t ask those type of questions,” he says. “I don’t feel the need to dictate her choices. I accept her and love her for who she is.” A few boundaries could have prevented the string of tragedies that begin to pile up.
But then, if everything were clearly delineated and these people merely communicated and understood each other, their situation would lack the tension needed to even attempt the making of an erotic thriller. Vic is virtually unknowable—there are multiple references to his weirdness (“I’m not normal,” he says at one point) but little sense of his interiority. He allows his wife to pursue at least flirtations (Joel, played by Brendan C. Miller, assures Vic that his relationship with Melinda is “all innocent of course”), but he struggles with them to the point of, uh, homicide, which is to say that he isn’t really allowing these relationships at all. He reneges and yet she persists, effectively putting her suitors in harm’s way. In many erotic thrillers, the sex-to-danger pipeline is rather straightforward and short for the male protagonists who get tangled in the web of a femme fatale. In Deep Water, this fatale-ing is effectively a team effort and directed at the secondary characters who enter Melinda and Vic’s orbit. Melinda doesn’t seem to know the full extent of Vic’s violence (though she does announce early on that she suspects him of murder), but her ultimate decision to stand by her man does finally implicate her.
This might read like a refreshing spin on the genre if it was more than a politely inert story predicated on its male character’s typical anxiety that his wife isn’t as much his property as she should be. What must have read as scandalous in 1957 plays fairly conservatively in 2022. Being a cuck may drive you crazy, suggests Deep Water. Too much is too obvious, and Zach Helm and Sam Levinson’s screenplay can’t bear to let subtext be subtext. Vic is effectively retired, sitting on the fortune he made from a chip used in drones. “Drone warfare. That’s kind of a moral gray area, isn’t it?” suggests one character. Indeed! Just like “allowing” your wife to play on the side while also taking great, illegal pains to uphold the integrity of your family unit (Vic and Melinda have a kid, Trixie).
In the days since Deep Water released on Hulu, much has been made of the snails that Vic keeps and Affleck’s “exceptionally good” handling of them, according to the movie’s snail wrangler, Max Anton. The snails indeed come as a saving grace, an injection of eccentricity in a movie that otherwise finds it in Affleck’s constipated expression while riding his bike and de Armas’s sorority-girl dancing to boogie woogie piano. To hear Vic tell it, the snails are meaningless. “The snails aren’t for eating…They’re not for anything,” he says to a character who’s hungry for escargot. To EW, wrangler Anton said:
They were a foil for Ben and Ana’s characters. Even these dumb animals, these very simple animals, without even really brains, as you know, by definition, exhibited the kind of love and fidelity that these humans were seemingly incapable of. The draw of the snails, for Ben’s character, is that it’s almost like peering into a world that he desires and he can’t have.
Perhaps! I think they’re just…Vic’s thing, like (maybe) fucking a string of hot guys is Melinda’s thing. It’s a quirk that Lyne is asking us to accept of this character, like Melinda asks Vic to accept her. (The snails also give Vic a convenient underground lair to hide something whose eventual discovery by Melinda is essential to the plot and to the understanding of their dynamic.) At one point, we see a pair of snails essentially twisted around each other, mating. If only their human counterparts could find such heat.