Producers: Arnon Milchan, Guymon Casady, Benjamin Forkner and Anthony Katagas Director: Adrian Lyne Screenplay: Zach Helm and Sam Levinson Cast: Ben Affleck, Ana de Armas, Tracy Letts, Lil Rel Howery, Dash Mihok, Finn Wittrock, Kristen Connolly, Jacob Elordi, Rachel Blanchard, Michael Braun, Jade Fernandez, Grace Jenkins, Brendan C. Miller, Devyn Tyler and Jeff Pope Distributor: Twentieth Century Studios/Hulu
Novels by the brilliant Patricia Highsmith have led to some equally brilliant films—Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” and Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (along with René Clément’s earlier French version of that book, “Purple Noon”)—are notable examples.
But Highsmith’s work poses special problems for adapters. Though usually categorized as thrillers, her novels are really subtle psychological character studies with crime elements, and if reduced to mere plot mechanics do not translate well. Filmmakers have recognized the delicate balancing act they require—including careful casting, using actors adept at suggesting the emotions roiling beneath the surface—but still many adaptations of her work have proven disappointing. Add this one to that list.
“Deep Water” is the story of Vic and Melinda Van Allen, a moneyed married couple in a small New England town who have developed an unusual relationship over the years. He’s a seemingly stolid, solid fellow, cultured and well-off, who dotes on their precocious daughter Trixie; he also has a peculiar hobby, raising snails (a particular fascination of Highsmith’s). He’s extraordinarily tolerant of Melinda’s open promiscuity with younger men.
Their friends and neighbors note Vic’s acceptance of Melinda’s open infidelity with incredulity, and when he confronts her latest lover with the suggestion that he’d murdered one of his predecessor, who’d gone mysteriously missing, he not only frightens the guy off but leads people, including Melinda, to believe he might just be telling the truth. When she takes up with another fellow, a pianist named Charlie De Lisle, he winds up dead in their pool during a party. There’s no doubt what happened—Highsmith does not deal in conventional whodunnits. The question is how Melinda and their friends—and the police, of course—will deal with the suspicion that Vic murdered him, and how Vic will deal with the fallout.
The focus of the book is on Vic’s interior life, and so one has to question whether Adrian Lyne was the best choice to direct or Ben Affleck the most suitable actor to play Vic. Lyne is an in-your-face helmer who has always emphasized the most lurid elements of the stories he tells and does so here, while Affleck’s natural impassivity barely registers anything going on underneath. Melinda, a high society type in the book, is transformed into a Latina spitfire, and Ana de Armas plays her as such. And Grace Jenkins’ Trixie, whose adorability editors Tim Squyres and Andrew Mondeshein tend to overestimate, is given an excess of screen time, much of it extraneous, and is made the focus of the insert during the final credits crawl.
And yet the film remains watchable, though undistinguished, rather like a decent cable film despite the fact that it was originally made, on a substantial budget, for theatrical release. And it has considerable virtues. The Louisiana locations suit Lyne’s steamy style more than Highsmith’s drier one, but they’re attractive enough, and Lyne uses them to stage not only but two murders effectively. The preservation of the snail motif, which plays to the director’s love of humidity, is welcome, though it might have been explored more cunningly. Dash Mihok, Finn Wittrock and Jacob Elordi score in their brief appearances as three of Melinda’s paramours. (On the other hand, Lil Rel Howery is simply intrusive as one of Vic’s friends.) And in purely visual terms the film has a sumptuous look, courtesy of production designer Jeannine Oppewall and cinematographer Eigil Bryld. Marco Beltrami’s score is curiously nondescript, and the songs added for color largely annoying.
Admirers of the book might object to a substantial change in the ending, which gives Don Wilson (Tracy Letts), the writer whose suspicions of Vic prove prescient, a much greater role and, frankly, strains credulity while opting for a degree of visceral excitement Highsmith ordinarily shunned. But though she generally dismissed adaptations of her work, she might have found the alteration to her liking, since it embraces the acerbic, ironic tone that was an important instrument in her toolbox.
In the end “Deep Water” is a fairly superficial take on the novel, more characteristic of Lyne than Highsmith; but fans of the author in particular will find it intriguing, even if the characters’ motivations remain more cryptic than compelling.