.Married to It: Presenting Patricia Highsmith’s venomous matrimonial demolition derby, ‘Deep Water’

There’s a certain amount of twisted sport in handicapping the two contestants pitted against each other in Deep Water, the violent new marital grudge-match melodrama. At first glance Vic Van Allen (Ben Affleck) and his wife Melinda (former “Bond girl” Ana de Armas) look like a couple of upscale models trying to sell us crypto currency or smart mattresses. Vic seems acquiescent and somewhat sheepish, even subservient, when stacked up against his wife Melinda, a naughty conspicuous consumer from High-Upkeep-ville. 

Mismatched marrieds with a vengeance, Vic and Melinda sleep apart and advertise their contempt openly. Their idea of a fun party is Melinda loudly draping herself over her latest other man – almost anyone will do — while Vic goes into a dull slow burn in the corner, occasionally making snide threats to his spouse’s new playmate. That way they have plenty to hash out next morning, when their bright, pathetic little daughter (Grace Jenkins) is having her breakfast. The clock starts ticking the moment we meet Vic and Melinda – one or both of them is a cinch to be dead when the 115 minutes run out. 

In every semi-imaginary scenario about any detestable married couple, from Laird and Lady Macbeth to Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun, there’s almost always a certain ineffable something, a magic ingredient, that puts the extra starch in the bed sheets and the weenies on the campfire. In Deep Water, that magic ingredient is Patricia Highsmith, the late, coolly misanthropic author of Strangers on a Train, the Ripley series and Deep Water, from which novel the new movie is adapted — by screenwriters Zach Helm and Sam Levinson. Highsmith the storyteller is never happy unless her characters are fed up and ready to kill each other. Or, perhaps she was never, ever happy. All we know is that we’re fascinated with her inventory of traps. 

Affleck has been on a roll lately. His Medieval schemer Pierre d’Alençon in Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel – most conspicuous of the “lost movies” of 2020 – was one of that year’s most skillful character acting jobs, and his simpatico role as Uncle Charlie in George Clooney’s The Tender Bar reminded us of the reason we always appreciate Affleck’s essential Everyman persona – all of us know someone like him, or wish we did.

Odd man out Vic in Deep Water, however, is a dog with a different set of fleas. Evidently he made a pile developing weapon apps for the military, and now, when he isn’t meekly trailing along behind his wife, he grimly tends his collection of snails. Vic and Melinda do occasionally have sex — by modern movie standards it is of the most innocuous kind. The only person who arguably understands Vic is his daughter Trixie, but he spoils that by giving her a glass of wine at dinner.

As for de Armas’ cartoonish sexpot Melinda, her chief and only occupation is finding new ways to torment her husband. The fact that her boyfriends keep disappearing annoys her momentarily, but it’s up to nosy neighbor Tracy Letts – with his cruise control set to “Nagging but Grudgingly Polite Stickler” — to actually do something about it. Affleck, de Armas and Letts operate in classic Highsmith “downward bound” mode, seemingly preoccupied with their hectic lives but actually sleepwalking the road to hell. 

Despite those performances Deep Water is an accomplished but essentially unremarkable entry in the Highsmith filmography, except for one wrinkle – it’s the return to filmmaking of Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lyne, 20 years after the veteran British helmer’s last directorial credit, the Richard Gere-Diane Lane starrer Unfaithful. In the intervening years Lyne evidently had bad luck picking projects. The wisest and easiest strategy for any filmmaker adapting a Highsmith story is to stand aside and let her gimlet-eyed POV take over. Lyne more or less does that, but for nagging sticklers like us that’s sometimes not quite enough.

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