As Hollywood has pivoted away from the mid-budget, movie star-driven studio film, a lot of genres have been either relegated to trashy streaming produced flicks or have disappeared altogether. The erotic thriller is one such genre, an all but forgotten art form that has registered few mainstream releases, especially as the sanitisation and desexualisation of Hollywood films has become more rampant. While there have been some films that have tried to capitalise on this lack of sexuality in cinema, most films fail to recapture the entertainment and story value of an erotic thriller.
Deep Water, Adrian Lyne’s return to directing after a twenty-year absence, brings about one of the best erotic thrillers this side of 2010. A taut, disarmingly funny yet unnervingly tense thrill ride that sees Lyne’s control of sexuality and tension slowly peel back the layers of a pathological cheater and her psychopathic husband to slowly reveal their true selves, their true sexual interests, and what they are willing to do for and to each other. The film slowly, meticulously moves through the paces, a mild slow burn, as the audience watches the couple mess with each other emotionally.
Based on the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, the film centres around Vic van Allen (Ben Affleck) and Melinda van Allen (Ana de Armas), a couple in marital strife, but stick together for their own sake and the sake of their daughter Trixie (Grace Jenkins). As their marriage has soured, Melinda has begun to seek extramarital affairs, though not exactly in secret, even sometimes flaunting it in front of Vic at lavish neighbourhood parties held by their friends. However, when Vic has a conversation with Melinda’s latest, and tells him that he murdered the last man who was having relations with Melinda, the rumour mill begins, getting to Vic and Melinda’s newest neighbour, arrogant crime writer Don (Tracy Letts), all the while the mind games between Vic and Melinda escalate, to fatal consequence.
As an erotic thriller, much of the sexuality is less titillating and more intriguing. Screenwriters Zach Helm and Sam Levinson, along with Lyne, use sex as a tool in much the same way it uses violence. Melinda’s open display of infidelity does not go unnoticed, she gets off on her husband’s lack of action, infuriated by his emotionless demeanour, yet titillated by it too. She is so full of sexual charge, all the while there’s something unnerving about Vic. Vic is portrayed in this unassuming way, he’s a quiet, regular guy, but underneath is a chance of true brutality and underlying jealousy. His sexual repression is expressed in this raw violence that feels like it is consistently on his mind.
For Vic and Melinda, violence and sexuality are the two extreme ends of the same spectrum, different ways of displaying sexual energy juxtaposed against each other. It’s all so volatile, unnerving, for the entire run time, it feels like its waiting for an explosion of everything between them, yet Lyne is so careful with how he directs the film. That simmering brutality is always just under the surface of Vic, Melinda’s lust is always on display, it always feels like they’re inches away from exploding into something abhorrent. It’s in that that the tension lies. Whether Lyne is focusing the camera on Vic watching Melinda openly flaunt her new flirt, or Lyne studying Melinda studying Vic, there’s always something disturbing under the surface.
Lyne really plays this as a form of character study. Helm and Levinson lay the groundwork with a good script, but it’s through Lyne’s direction that the combination of the morbid playfulness and the unnerving enjoyment comes through. He knows that both Vic and Melinda are heavily flawed, easily despicable characters, so the tension comes from the sexuality and the use of juxtaposition. Lyne really plays with tone throughout, at times the film becomes unnervingly funny, through the way in which he directs Affleck and de Armas, through the inclusion of casual family scenes (including a very cute car karaoke scene), the normalcy of their family life contrasted with the horrors of their hidden lives, creates an all the more effective off-putting feeling, increasing the tension tenfold.
What truly sells the film though is the two movie stars at the centre of it. Affleck and de Armas both have such acute awareness of their own screen presence, let alone how they are perceived as actors and use that accordingly. Affleck is kind of using his unassuming, mundanity that he weaponised to brilliant effect in Gone Girl, Vic functions off being a smart guy who, despite rumours, you can still believe couldn’t really hurt a fly. It’s so effective, particularly as the audience is left to question whether he really could kill anyone like he says he did to scare off Melinda’s first affair of the film, it creates this layer of wariness, this uncertainty surrounding Vic. Affleck, tapping into his own banality is so key, it’s so unassuming that it makes that chance for an abhorrent act all the more uncertain.
Meanwhile, de Armas gets to play in this far more mature zone than she has before in her Hollywood career. Her charm isn’t gone, that kind of youngish charisma that she uses, usually used to create a naivety or innocence, is still all here in the way she tries to get rises out of Vic. It feels far more menacing here, a dark playfulness that feels like it has spiteful undertones, all the while playing into her sexuality and her understanding of her allure. It’s all the more powerful in this way, it’s easy to understand how she draws these men into her life, she is charming, playful and sexy, even in spite of the malice she shows to Vic, it’s understandable. de Armas plays this all perfectly, like Affleck, weaponising her own personas that she’s come to be known for to create this unnervingly unfaithful wife.
As the film continues, as the story plays out, as it keeps inching along towards the climax, the film just has this subtle rise in tension, until the pin drops. It’s the exact kind of filmmaking that makes you laugh from the tension, makes you scream out “this is psychotic”. It’s compelling in that way, maybe not anything supremely different from other erotic thrillers, yet so deft in the way it just slowly draws you in, alluring you, one might even say seducing you, into the madness that is this unhinged marriage and is it one entertaining thrill ride at that.
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