The scene in Gone Girl when Ben Affleck gets pelted with Gummy Bears by Tyler Perry is a tremendous example of a movie star allowing himself to be mocked. The idea that Affleck’s character needs Pavlovian conditioning to perform more naturally in front of the camera is a wry riff on the star’s long-standing—and complex-to-contextualize—reputation as an inadequate actor, which goes all the way back to Shakespeare in Love, when he was cast, very much in-jokingly, as the famed Elizabethan tragedian Ned Alleyn.
Over the years, Affleck’s credentials have been either kidded (“You the bomb in Phantoms, yo!”), critiqued, or subordinated to a celebrity status that fixed him as either hapless or villainous in the public mind’s eye. Even when he managed to direct a movie that won Best Picture, Affleck was passed over in the acting category; he remains the biggest star of his generation without a nomination. (Even his younger brother has a statuette.) Last year, Affleck was terrific in two very different movies, nearly stealing The Last Duel in a villainous role as a prissy aristocrat, matching old pal Matt Damon bad haircut for bad haircut and smirking out at the world from beneath a priceless bottle-blond dye job. He also popped up in the soggy male weepie The Tender Bar as an avuncular drink-slinger with a heart of gold, doling out world-weary life advice to a millennial Will Hunting manqué, a part squarely in his middle-aged sweet spot.
These days, there’s an intelligence to Affleck’s acting whether or not the characters he’s playing are smart, and even if the material is beneath him. What used to seem like the callow cockiness of a handsome front-runner has hardened—and deepened—into a kind of grizzled charisma, the gravitas of a frat boy facing down his own expiration date. That weathered quality was key to Gone Girl, which tore into Affleck’s celebrity persona with wincing precision. “I’m sick of being picked apart by women,” sighs America’s most infamous serial monogamist, bemoaning his status as tabloid fodder while skulking around incognito in a baseball cap (but definitely not a Yankees one). This quality also turned his meta-comeback vehicle The Way Back into an enjoyable underdog sports-movie-slash character study, carried through its familiar plot beats by a star leaning into his own weary, wily charm.
Affleck is the best thing in Adrian Lyne’s new thriller, Deep Water, and while there isn’t much competition, the film—which premieres on Hulu on Friday after a series of long and much publicized delays—serves as an example of his formidable skill set within a very specific range.
Adapted from a 1957 novel by Patricia Highsmith, who specialized in sketching the seething psychologies of potential killers, the film orbits a wealthy, casually ingenious software designer who’s taken early retirement to enjoy the spoils of his professional life. These include: a massive, magazine-spread-ready suburban house; a doting, tech-savvy 6-year-old daughter; and a much younger wife, Melinda (Ana De Armas), who glimmers and glistens on a pedestal like the high-priced trophy she is. What Affleck brings to the part is, on one hand, perfectly predictable: The role is in the same mold as Gone Girl’s Nick Dunne, a husband caught in a situation that spirals lethally out of control. But where the arguable flaw of David Fincher’s film is that Affleck’s antihero never felt truly capable of the violence suspected of him, Deep Water only works if his Vic Van Allen is plausibly sociopathic. Confronting a younger man whom he’s just seen aggressively making out with Melinda at a garden party, Vic calmly tells the dude that the last guy who fooled around with his wife disappeared mysteriously. He then adds, poker-faced, that he killed said guy with a hammer. Is he joking? What if he isn’t?
As long as it’s playing off of its leading man’s granite-like opacity, Deep Water is good, trashy fun, a welcome return to action—and, at times, to form—for the long-absent Lyne. The last movie Lyne directed was 2002’s Unfaithful, which featured a superlative performance by Diane Lane as a married woman hooking up with a younger man—clearly a plot in Lyne’s wheelhouse. The number of filmmakers who can truly be said to have helped invent a genre is short, and Lyne would be a significant director if the only thing he’d ever made was 1987’s Fatal Attraction, a keynote erotic thriller that remains polarizing decades after the fact, legible both as a misogynist cautionary tale about a clingy, obsessive homewrecker and a slyly feminist critique of privileged masculine entitlement.
After storming Hollywood as part of a group of slick, flashy, UK-based filmmakers brandishing MTV aesthetics that included the likes of Russell Mulcahy and Ridley and Tony Scott, Lyne earned a critical reputation as an empty stylist. “[He’s] like a sleazo putting the make on you,” wrote Pauline Kael. In terms of subject matter, Lyne was savvily opportunistic—see his 1997 adaptation of Lolita, which swaps out Kubrick’s innuendo for straight-up explicitness—but he also had the chops to hold an audience. Lyne’s one foray into horror, 1990’s Jacob’s Ladder, holds up as a freaky, demonic moral tale with genuinely terrifying jump scares and a startlingly warped sense of reality. As for Unfaithful, its more politically correct revision of Fatal Attraction was complemented by a distinctive throwback quality, as if Lyne was still trying in the early 2000s to make the best movie of 1957—a high compliment. Now, Lyne is 81 years old, and the kind of movies he helped usher into the Hollywood mainstream—glossy, horny exploitation movies for grown-ups—have either disappeared or migrated to television. The sexlessness of contemporary American cinema is an epidemic worth studying in light of the rise of superhero movies and all-ages IP; it’s telling that one of the cowriters of Deep Water is Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, who, if nothing else, recognizes the appeal (and potency) of designer sleaze.
The irony of a director once regarded as a Hollywood gate-crasher peddling short-attention-span aesthetics hanging around long enough to be considered a classicist is thick, and yet like fellow old hands Brian De Palma and Paul Verhoeven, Lyne’s endurance grants him the same respectability as politicians, ugly buildings, and the rest. And as the opening scenes of Deep Water prove, he still knows his way around a well-heeled bedroom. The recurring shots of Vic and the tempestuous, black-tressed Melinda separated by hallway arches and door frames as they stare separately into silence speak an eloquent subtextual language. There’s something between them, and whatever it is, it isn’t good.
Of course, the scenes between Affleck and de Armas are loaded by our knowledge of their short-lived—but much-publicized—relationship. Not since Eyes Wide Shut has a mainstream Hollywood movie featured such explicit sex scenes between cohabitating A-listers, and the basic theme of murderous jealousy is carried over from Kubrick’s movie, along with a texture of material wealth that may or may not be satirical. Vic and Melinda aren’t just comfortable—they’re idly rich, and every house party has a live band, an open bar, or an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Over and over again, we’re shown them leaving little Trixie (Grace Jenkins) with a babysitter while they go out with their circle of similarly wealthy friends; they come home at dawn because nobody has to get up in the morning. And everywhere Vic looks, Melinda is seducing his friends and neighbors—and not contriving to hide it, either. The same Bon Jovi–looking himbo who got the story about the dead guy and the hammer is invited over for a lobster bisque and an apology, and Melinda all but orders her husband to go read their kid “a bunch of bedtime stories” so that she can cuddle up to the guest.
Vic, for his part, seems equally enraged and turned on by Melinda’s shtick—signs, perhaps, of a cuckolding fetish—but crucially, he’s never quite surprised. For a while, the question of whether Miranda is damaged goods, a femme fatale, or an equal partner in some prearranged marital gamesmanship is left dangling ajar like the doorways that Lyne’s camera keeps creeping around, as if searching for clues. A few details resonate: In a change from the novel, Vic has gotten rich off of a computer chip sold primarily to military contractors, and the idea of him as an American apex predator once removed—a man with blood on his hands by proxy, getting rich off of foreign conflict—is wickedly topical. When he tells his suspicious new acquaintance Don (Tracy Letts) that the technology could just as easily be used to airlift food to refugees as to carry out drone warfare, the older man snarks back righteously, “but it isn’t.” Then there’s the matter of Vic’s hobby of raising snails—slimy, patient survivors. Are they pets? Or his stealthy mirror images?
Eventually, the other stiletto has to drop, and when it does, Deep Water falls apart. The slow burn of the opening is supplanted by a kamikaze race to the finish line. It’s as if Lyne simply lost control of the material, or else had it taken out of his hands. A couple of key late sequences are bizarrely written and staged, as if patching holes in the narrative; the decision to shift away from Vic’s perspective for one crucial moment is terribly misguided, violating the director’s careful use of point of view in the rest of the movie. A set piece involving a speeding car and a dropped cell phone plays more like sarcastic parody than a white-knuckle climax as the movie drops the audience into the no-man’s land between laughing with a movie and laughing at it.
Thrillers that don’t quite stick the landing are common, and considering rumors of a troubled production, Deep Water is far from a disaster—or from the salacious camp classic the online hordes seem to be clamoring for. But it’s also not good enough to serve as ground zero for some larger renewal of the erotic thriller. The frustration lies in watching people who know what they’re doing fail to completely pull it off; the residual feeling is one of a missed opportunity. In the funniest—and most overtly Hitchcockian moment—Vic watches as something he’d tried his best to hide winds up coming back into plain sight. Affleck’s half-guilty, half-impatient expression is hilarious, as is his half-hearted attempt to push the incriminating thing back out of view. It’s the perfect emblem for a movie that isn’t really trying to submerge its flaws.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.