British filmmaker Adrian Lyne made a name for himself in the ’80s and ’90s thanks to lurid thrillers (“Fatal Attraction,” “Indecent Proposal,” “Lolita”) that put the “sexually” in “sexually-charged” and “sexual taboo.”
He didn’t make a lot of movies, but from “Foxes” and “Flashdance” to “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Unfaithful,” his work always grabbed attention and often titillated its way into the national conversation.
The long dormant Lyne turned 81 on March 4. But with his first film in 20 years, “Deep Water,” it’s like he never left, and the years certainly haven’t altered his cinematic appetites or dulled his scalpel. Much.
“Deep Water” is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, a writer (“The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Strangers on a Train,””The Two Faces of January”) right up Lynne’s dark and sordid alley. As with other Highsmith works, it gives us jealousy and murder, lays a suspect at our feet and dares us not to believe he did it and not to root for him if he did.
Ben Affleck is Vic Van Allen, a retired-wealthy chip designer whose reserved bearing might be a reflection of the ease of his station in life, or be a part of the moral compartmentalization he developed when he designed a microchip that made U.S. military drones all the more deadly in tracking down and “killing people.”
He’s not inclined to lose control, something his too-young/too-promiscuous wife (Ana De Armas of “Knives Out”) tests constantly. She cuckolds him pretty much constantly, pretty much openly and pretty much everybody in their social circle knows it.
His friends (Devyn A. Tyler, Lil Rel Howery) give him the “OI just don’t want you out here looking foolish” and “You’ve gotta rein Melinda in” speeches, but he remains unrattled.
“Sometimes I think he’s not normal” seems to be the consensus. And as we see Melinda flaunt this Brad Pitt/Kato Kaelin look-alike (Brendan Miller), that piano player (Jacob Eloridi) or an old flame (Finn Wittrock) suddenly showering attention and returning her stolen kisses, we might agree.
“I don’t find the need to dictate her choices” is what he says. But we’ve seen the erotic control she’s exercising over him, heard her arrogant “You’d be bored” if she wasn’t this way rationalizations.
And then we see one of those shameless philanderers button-hole him at one of the endless parties they attend, hear Vic drop the name of this “guy who’s been missing for a while,” mention the missing man also “saw a lot of my wife. And then Vic matter-of-factly tells his wife’s paramour “I killed him.”
It’s kind of a casual admission tinged with an emotionless menace.
“Are you threatening me?” “Do you feel threatened?”
And that’s your movie. Maybe the first guy disappeared by coincidence Maybe the second guy leaves this Louisiana setting in a hurry for good reason. A new writer in town (Tracy Letts) hears the murderous rumors that Vic has started and gets curious. And as we wonder what Vic is capable of, we also wonder what Melinda knows knows, and if she’s playing this game of sexual brinksmanship against her husband, or with him.
De Armas gives us a taste of femme fatale in her sexy wild child. She makes a believable life-of-the-party drunk and an utterly convincing “I’m beautiful enough to get away with anything” bully.
Affleck has spent a lot of time perfecting his poker face, and that gives the moments Vic let’s us see his pained victimhood or barely-contained fury pay off.
Highsmith was a novelist of an earlier age, and the same could be said of Lyne. He finds little sexual touches to give his picture an up-to-the-moment edge. But he’s big on dropping on-the-nose dated pop tunes into the diegetic music — songs that Daddy Vic sings in the car with their “brilliant” little girl Trixie (Grace Jenkins), played at parties etc. — as joking references to what story is being told, from “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley” to “The Lady is a Tramp.”
Some plot twists are introduced and abandoned in the editing — just a guess, because the film does drag a little and feels a tad long. And the finale has just enough “Oh come on” in it to make us look for another bunny drowned in a cooking pot or Glenn Close rising from the drowned in the bathtub.
Mostly though, Lyne plays it straight and lets the clockwork thriller script tick through its minutes, giving up one revelation only to tease us along with fresh questions.
Whatever the film’s shortcomings, you can’t say the cast isn’t on the mark and that Lyne, at the very least, still has it and remains very much a master at sucking us in and making us care, no matter who the hero and who the villain might be.
Rating: R for sexual content, nudity, language and some violence
Cast: Ben Affleck, Ana De Armas, Tracy Letts, Lil Rel Howrey, Finn Wittrock, Jacob Elordi and Grace Jenkins.
Credits: Directed by Adrian Lyne, scripted by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith. A 20th Century release on Hulu.
Running time: 1:55