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'Deep Water' could have been artful or fun — but instead, it's just mechanical

Melinda (Ana de Armas) and Vic (Ben Affleck)
Claire Folger
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Courtesy of 20th Century Studio
Melinda (Ana de Armas) and Vic (Ben Affleck)

The word "trash" is a complicated one.

Pauline Kael wrote the essay "Trash, Art, and the Movies" in 1969. In it, she argued that many — that most — movies are not art. They are entertaining or not, they are pleasurable or not, they are satisfying or not, but most lack the level of technique that makes technique worth talking about, and thus, they are not art. She says that after all, people who are considering seeing a movie ask the question "What's it about?" or "Who's in it?", rather than the question "How [well] is it made?" But lack of technique doesn't necessarily make the movie bad, she argues. It's perfectly valid to like a movie, even while understanding it is not an artfully made movie. As such, Kael refers broadly to (at least some) movies that are not art as "trash," whether they are good or not. The term "trash" is not exactly derogatory, even though it is certainly dismissive of, specifically, the idea of treating trash as art.

So let's talk about Deep Water.

Deep Water is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name, although the liberties it takes with Highsmith's plot, characterizations, and themes are considerable. In the film, Vic (Ben Affleck) is married to Melinda (Ana de Armas), and they have a little daughter. Melinda has boyfriends on the side, a habit Vic knows about, and she knows he knows, and they talk about it pretty openly. This doesn't seem to be consensual nonmonogamy in the movie, or a kink they both enjoy; it's a situation that they both seem unhappy in, and it's not clear how they got here. (With that said, perhaps being miserable is their kink. I don't judge.)

The film comes from Adrian Lyne, who directed Flashdance in 1983 and then became sort of a king of semi-scandalous sex movies, including Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, Unfaithful, and — probably most famously when it comes to sexual content — 9 1/2 Weeks. These movies were a fascinating example of the blurry lines between trash and art: Fatal Attraction is a sensational thriller that pushes an awful lot of pretty familiar exploitation buttons but managed to be nominated for best picture. And Deep Water is right up Lyne's alley: a story about the mixing of sex and violence, and particularly the explosive psychic dangers of extramarital affairs.

The writing pedigree here is peculiar: Lyne is working with screenwriters Sam Levinson, who created Euphoria, and Zach Helm, who wrote Stranger Than Fiction and Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. That is, you might say, a lot.

Notably, Highsmith's explanation of the nature of Vic and Melinda's marriage is not the same as what you get from the movie. In the book, Vic sort of fancies himself a modern man, too sophisticated to be anything as petty as jealous or possessive: "One of Vic's firmest principles was that everybody—therefore, a wife—should be allowed to do as she pleased, provided no one else was hurt and that she fulfilled her main responsibilities, which were to manage a household and to take care of her offspring."

But in the movie, Vic doesn't seem to enjoy anything about his marriage; he glowers at Melinda at the (many) parties they attend as she openly dances and flirts with other men, and he stews as she comes home late over and over from various assignations. There certainly doesn't seem to be any expectation on his part that she participate in a traditional household. Admittedly, it can be hard to tell the difference between glowering angrily and glowering lustily, and I have already seen critical responses to this film that read Vic as more turned on by Melinda's affairs than I did. Is he grim or is he horny? That is the question.

The story kicks in when we learn that one of Melinda's past boyfriends has disappeared, and then something bad happens to another one of them, and the central question of the movie becomes: Did Vic have something to do with what happened to these guys? (Melinda immediately believes he did, which is another sign that perhaps this is not a consensually open marriage but something more troubled.)

From here, you get a lot of Ben Affleck wearing one expression. Even in the trailer, there is shot after shot of the same face of flat loathing. He's certainly presented as a potentially menacing figure in both the trailer and the movie, but what's missing is the specificity and the transformation of, say, Matt Damon's pale, awkward, grasping Tom turning inevitably monstrous in the Highsmith adaptation The Talented Mr. Ripley. Affleck here is just "angry jealous husband," largely the same at the beginning and the end, which is considerably less satisfying.

But it raises an interesting question that a lot of self-consciously steamy movies have raised before it: Is this good, even if it's not artful?

My conclusion is that it is competent, that Lyne certainly knows how to create the particular state of sweaty and potentially destructive lust that has become his signature. But it was hard for me to close the distance between myself and this movie, to get into it, simply because it felt ... mechanical. The seams show.

But there are times when Deep Water approaches another kind of success, which is the status of really good trash. This is particularly so in a sequence in which the great Tracy Letts, playing a local buttinsky, winds up as one of two characters in a chase scene on a mountain. You will see the extraordinarily unlikely, superhero-level, Fast-and-Furious-level feat of timing that is about to happen at the climax of this chase, and you will see that Letts is chewing, chewing, chewing the pretty mountain scenery to play it up. The guy knows what he's doing; he's over the top on purpose. He is participating in good trash.

There is also a strain of good trash in the fact that Vic — in a character flourish that is in the book — spends a lot of time out in a little shed communing with his collection of snails. The main purpose of the snail scenes seems to be that extreme close-ups of snails make them look kind of ... mucosal? And writhing? Which is sensual? All these question marks are to say that the snails almost seem to turn Vic on, which is a good-trash detail if ever there was one.

It's too simple to say this movie falls victim to being "no script, just vibes," but it's a little bit true. What's unmistakable here is the incredibly Lyne-ian mood, that '90s sense of the "seems to contain more sex than it actually does" picture. The Overton Sex Window has shifted considerably since Fatal Attraction, particularly given how much sex you can watch on self-consciously classy television, so there's something about the gauzy "fog of sex" tone they're going for here that's almost nostalgic. Erotic thrillers have a long and honorable history (Fatal Attraction was part of the Michael Douglas drop-your-pants-and-run-for-your-life trilogy that also included Basic Instinct and Disclosure), and long may they ... wave.

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