Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Ben Affleck, resplendent with stubble and weary eye bags, is a rich but bored husband with a beautiful (but also bored) wife, rattling around in a giant house wondering what to do with himself. Soon enough, a dead body appears. That’s the premise of Deep Water, a sultry new thriller starring Affleck and Ana de Armas as his wayward partner, but I could just as easily be describing Gone Girl, David Fincher’s superlative 2014 thriller about another Affleck-led relationship that goes sour. That tension is what the actor brings to the table these days: In any scene, you’re not sure whether you should kiss him or call the police.
Ever since the once–boyishly charming A-lister entered his 40s, he’s leaned into roles that emphasize a haunted past without sacrificing his marquee-friendly looks. Deep Water, directed by Adrian Lyne, is a healthy throwback to a previously dominant genre—the erotic drama. Lyne was once a master of the form, churning out hits such as Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, and Unfaithful before seemingly retiring 20 years ago. His return plays to his strengths, stringing together tasteful sex and murder-mystery material to create a perfectly dependable two hours of grown-up fun.
Because this is 2022, however, that grown-up fun has been relegated to a streaming service. (Deep Water will debut on Hulu this Friday.) The film started shooting back in 2019, but its release was delayed time and again thanks to COVID; we’ve waited so long to see it, Affleck and de Armas even had an offscreen relationship that’s already run its course. Fox, Deep Water’s original studio, has now been subsumed under Disney, and the family-friendly House of Mouse has decided to keep the adult story out of cinemas. (Disney has not commented on this decision.) That’s a sad fate for Deep Water, given that it represents a comeback for a type of movie that used to pack houses. (Fatal Attraction was one of the biggest hits of 1987.)
Still, taking in all the steamy silliness from the comfort of your own home is enjoyable enough. In Deep Water, which is based on a 1957 Patricia Highsmith novel (itself a cited inspiration for Gone Girl), Affleck plays Vic Van Allen, a retired microchip designer living in a fancy New Orleans mansion with his wife, Melinda (de Armas), and adorable daughter, Trixie (Grace Jenkins). Though the couple’s partnership is not without sexual spark, Melinda’s eye constantly wanders, and she fearlessly parades a series of men in front of her husband over the course of the film, canoodling with them at parties under his nose. Early in the movie, Vic takes Melinda’s latest squeeze aside and hints that he might have had a hand in the disappearance of her last supposed lover.
Is the comment a bit of jealous braggadocio, or is Vic actually a cold-blooded killer? That’s the keep-you-guessing appeal of Deep Water, which sees Vic and Melinda’s relationship vacillate between tenderness and simmering rage. In Highsmith’s novel, their marriage has entirely desiccated; Vic merely tolerates Melinda’s transgressions as long as she doesn’t ask for a messy divorce. But this update, written by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson, is a lot less clear on how officially “open” the couple are, and whether Melinda’s affairs are an attempt to catch her husband’s attention or push him away.
Affleck is therefore well cast; he can play Vic as a piece of dead weight while still winking at the movie-star magnetism that lurks underneath, teasing it out as the story develops. The role is far darker (and pulpier) than the one he played in the inspirational drama The Way Back, but whereas in that film he portrayed an alcoholic rediscovering his love of basketball, here his character’s true passion leads to a lot of suspicious disappearances. Once Vic makes his veiled threat to Melinda’s boy toy, he starts upping the menacing behavior around each subsequent lover (played by Jacob Elordi and Finn Wittrock, among others).
De Armas is one of the most exciting young stars around right now—her Knives Out performance was revelatory, and she was the best thing about No Time to Die last year. But she gets the short stick here, mostly glowering in the background as Melinda ponders whether Vic has turned as villainous as he’s intimating. Their scenes together have genuine sizzle, something many a modern Hollywood romance lacks. But Deep Water could use a little more shading for its female lead, especially some further explanation of just how her relationship with Vic deteriorated. Instead, audiences are served up multiple moments of Vic communing with snails, which he keeps as pets (a reference to Highsmith herself, who apparently once pulled gastropods out of her handbag at a dinner party).
Even in good whodunits, the setup is typically way more exciting than the payoff: For example, the first two-thirds of Unfaithful, Lyne’s previous film, are alluring and skillfully performed, while the final act feels more perfunctory. In Deep Water, viewers will have much more fun guessing at how dangerous Vic and Melinda’s cat-and-mouse game is going to get than watching the results unfold. Characters start making mistakes, the body count reaches implausible levels, and practical questions of just who is keeping an eye on Vic and Melinda’s daughter during all this mayhem start to overwhelm the narrative. But Deep Water is still a robust, well-acted thriller that lands most of its major twists gracefully; for that, all lesser sins can be forgiven.