Hulu’s ‘Deep Water’ gives Ben Affleck his sex appeal back

Movies about all the things adults do with and to each other, even if it’s a perfect movie, are not rare. How I’ve missed them.

“Indecent Proposal” and “Fatal Attraction” director Adrian Lyne has broken his 20-year movie-making hiatus to adapt novelist Patricia Highsmith’s thriller “Deep Water.” It’s not perfect, but it is fun — and grown-up fun. Much has been made of the absence of sex from big, contemporary movies; here, Lyne gives us a sense of what we’re missing in an alleged gritty, mature blockbuster like “The Batman.” Lyne’s movies have always excelled at depicting perverted emotion and sexual manipulation, and it’s hard not to be impressed by his skills here as well — even if grudgingly. (A lot of the movie is very silly, sometimes unintentionally.)

“Deep Water” explores its two magnetic lead characters in ways that more expensive entertainment has mostly stopped attempting.

“Deep Water” explores its two magnetic lead characters, played by Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck, in ways that more expensive entertainment has mostly stopped attempting. Now that I’ve mentioned “Batman,” this movie’s setup probably sounds familiar: A withdrawn man (played by a former Batman) teeters on the brink of self-destruction, and can only be saved by a woman who refuses to be intimidated or dominated by him. And yet somehow, multiple directors have found ways to make the relationship between a self-destructive man who dresses up as a bat and an assertive woman who dresses up as a cat less unusual and interesting than the relationship at the heart of Highsmith’s mystery.

Lyne is clever: usually lurid but rarely sleazy, he is enamored not just of his often-treacherous leading women, but of the way they and his leading men get close to each other. Melinda (de Armas) and Vic van Allen (Ben Affleck) are many things, but they are not passionless.

Like most good directors, Lyne is also interested in process — in showing, rather than telling — and where other films show the various steps involved in carrying out a murder, or a daring heist, Lyne shows us how Melinda and Vic try and fail and try again to get under each other’s skin, in ways pleasant and unpleasant. Vic needles Melinda by spoiling their precocious daughter while she torments her mother; Melinda flirts with, and then beds, a number of angelic-looking, stupid men half Vic’s age. But when they are in the car together, Melinda bites off part of an apple and feeds it to Vic; after one of her extramarital liaisons, she smokes a flagrantly post-coital cigarette at him; she bullies, threatens and lures him with sex. In as many ways as she can, she challenges his aloofness. When it works, they sleep with each other, instead of with other people.

Vic, by contrast, is reserved and superior. Affleck’s character seems to have literally everything under his control, so that when he tells one of Melinda’s hapless suitors that he murdered her last lover, we mostly believe him. (This seems most likely false, but Affleck’s assured delivery keeps us guessing.) He is a man who rarely lets himself go, to the frustration of his wife. But when the opportunity to actually murder one of Melinda’s boyfriends — and almost certainly get away with it — presents itself, he indulges himself with the same abandon Melinda tries so often to elicit from him.

Here, the “mystery” part isn’t who did it, or even how, but why, and whether he will be caught or get away with it.

These ingredients make for a very interesting murder mystery. Here, the “mystery” part isn’t who did it, or even how, but why, and whether he will be caught or get away with it. That last question is the engine that makes “Deep Water” run, and because this is from a Highsmith novel — she wrote, among others, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and its sequels, about a bashful social climber who murders his way through the midcentury upper crust — Vic might die or go to prison. Or he might have only his own conscience, such as it is, to deal with.

By contrast, “The Batman” is absolutely a murder mystery, filled, like “Deep Water,” with terrific actors — Robert Pattinson, our weird heartthrob of a leading-man detective, the beautiful Zoe Kravitz as his love interest, and Paul Dano as the evil serial killer. But you never wonder what’s going to happen, or why, even during a car chase or a gnarly street fight. Batman will catch the bad guy, who will wax philosophical about killing people for fun; Broken relationships will be mended not with familiar, personally knowledgeable gestures, but with long, clumsy monologues.

It hasn’t always been this way, as Lyne, who is 81, knows and demonstrates. Film is a visual medium; Meanwhile, it’s the rare TV show that punishes you for not paying full attention to the screen at all times. In “The Batman,” you can see that aspect of TV’s influence on film — its characters don’t collide emotionally unless they announce, verbally, that it’s happening, narrating their seductions or rejections.

In “Deep Water,” even those seductions and rejections are about other things. The bite of an apple is a reminder from Melinda to Vic that she still has some agency over him, even if he’s superior and withdrawn. She can make him jump for her, and it drives him crazy, and he likes it, and she resents him for liking it. What Lyne demonstrates, both in his new movie and in his back catalog, is that there is an artistically interesting place in potboiler entertainment for complicated characters whose inner lives can’t be explored via dialogue alone. Acknowledging that isn’t disgraceful or prurient, it’s another vitally important set of art-making tools. Here’s hoping they come back.

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