I mentioned at the start of my blog series The Cinematic Mr. Ripley that it seemed like a good idea to look at the various films based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books, since a movie based on one of her other thrillers was coming out soon. By coincidence, Deep Water (directed by Adrian Lyne, starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas) came out right as I was wrapping out my blog series, so I decided to postpone my final post and look at that film. I was curious if any of the questions brought up in the Ripley movies would apply to this film.
Deep Water is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1957 novel of the same name. It came out in the same decade as Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, and is probably one of Highsmith’s best novels. The story opens in Little Westley, an affluent suburb where Vic Van Allen runs a boutique publishing house. Vic’s neighbors like him, but pity him since his wife Melinda doesn’t do much to hide her various affairs.
“Vic didn’t dance, but not for the reasons that most men who don’t dance give to themselves. He didn’t dance simply because his wife liked to dance. His rationalization of his attitude was a flimsy one and didn’t fool him for a minute, though it crossed his mind every time he saw Melinda dancing: she was insufferably silly when she danced. She made dancing embarassing.”Opening paragraph to Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith
Vic doesn’t want to upset his life or his young daughter’s life by getting a divorce, so he lets Melinda carry on while getting revenge in small ways. When Vic tells Melinda’s lover Joel Nash that he killed a fellow who “disappeared” six months ago, most people treat it as a dark joke. When her next lover is found dead in a swimming pool during a house party, attitudes change.
Going into this film, I knew if nothing else it had interesting history. Ben Affleck’s frequent collaborator Matt Damon played Tom Ripley in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley. Adrian Lyne’s previous films included a remake of a 1960s French New Wave thriller by Claude Chabrol, also known for adapting two Highsmith novels. The French New Wave made a lot of notable films based on Highsmith novels (including the first Ripley adaptation and the 1981 version of Deep Water). So, if anyone would know the history of Highsmith adaptations and how to do something interesting with them, Lyne seemed like a good choice.
The movie follow the novel reasonably closely, updating some of its trappings. Vic Van Allen is now a computer developer who made enough money off a computer chip used in drones that he’s retired and spend his time “developing web apps, publishing a magazine of photography and poetry, riding my mountain bike and spending time with my daughter.” Most of his neighbors aren’t bothered by the fact he’s made his money off something used for drone warfare, although Melinda refers to him making bombs and seems to prefer more altruistic men (young artist types, a sustainable housing developer, and so on). Ben Affleck plays Vic as a passionless but kind man, a coldness that may be darker than others realizes.
Ana de Armas plays Melinda as a Latin American who moved to America sometime in her teens, and finds America restrictive. That creates a nice contrast with her stoic husband and his very Anglo-European name. Her six-year-old daughter (Grace Jenkins, who steals the show in every scene) takes after her father, and is starting to figure out the “friends of her mother” are a threat to her daddy.
While the novel is about a cuckolded husband, Highsmith didn’t include any detailed love scenes. All the real danger and spice was communicated in little things – hostesses being overly nice to Vic at house parties where Melinda spends all her time with other men. Melinda inviting her “friends” over for dinner… and Vic reading in the living room so Melinda can’t get any private time with her friend. This fits a schema in Highsmith’s Ripley books: sex may be involved, but not explicitly. Tom Ripley may kill his friend Dickie Greenleaf to remove his repressed desire for Dickie, or it may just be a sociopath lashing out at someone who rejects him. If there’s sex in a Highsmith thriller, it’s only in understated Freudian conflicts between men who end up killing each other.
The movie does a good job of setting up the world Vic and Melinda Van Allen live in: prosperous friends who, as Roger Ebert might say, make enough money to have houses with a room for every mood. Friends who not only have swimming pools, but can hire private bands for their house parties, where they chat about getting their six-year-olds into schools that lead to maximum college chances. Everyone is wealthy, but no one seems – just as comfortable dropping their kids off at school or making cookies for guests as they are tossing back cocktails at the pool.
While the setting and domestic warfare (Vic not leaving any morning coffee for Melinda because she stayed out all night, etc.) are maintained, the movie adds a lot of sexual content to the story. This isn’t surprising (Adrian Lyne did direct Fatal Attraction) but the sex ends up feeling gratuitous and not very interesting. Earlier Highsmith movies like Purple Noon or The Talented Mr. Ripley implied sex scenes and made the passion interesting by implication. The atmosphere sold the tension more than the visuals. Deep Water goes all in for the R-rated content, but ends up with the same problem as Ripley Under Ground: if the movie doesn’t make the characters compelling, sex won’t save it.
From a philosophy perspective, Deep Water tries to follow the book’s idea of pulling the audience inside the hero’s head until they don’t realize this is an antihero story with nihilism at its heart. It doesn’t have the book’s final twist, but it does what all thrillers do and provides a twist in the last act… one that suggests nothing changes. The guilty are neither caught nor punished, and it may be that this isn’t the first time Vic and Melinda have been through a situation like this. The worm ouroboros eats its own tail.
In theory, this should work for a thriller ending. However, it’s not handled well and exposes the bigger problem in Deep Water: you can only have a thriller with dubious heroes and a nihilistic ending if you work overtime to make it interesting. The best of the French New Wave films based on Highsmith’s novels played with amoral themes but took different directions at the end (Purple Noon), or manipulated the audience so well that you didn’t mind the nihilism (The Cry of the Owl).
The alternative is to take Highsmith’s amoral hero (Vic Van Allen, Tom Ripley, Charles Anthony Bruno, etc.) and replace the nihilism with something else. Anthony Minghella turned Tom Ripley into a tragic, haunted sociopath who knows he’s stuck in a purgatorial cycle of killing everyone who gets too close to him. Wim Wenders made Ripley into a manic depressive who makes up for his hollow life by also finding something new (kids toys, random hobbies, renovating his house, etc). Liliana Cavani made Ripley a witty sociopath who lives a comfortable life but is slightly troubled whenever he comes up against how empty his life really is.
Deep Water doesn’t take any of these options. Ben Affleck is convincing as a charming but opaque man. However, since the movie can’t get into Vic Van Allen’s head (his hobbies, his rationalizations, his affection for his daughter) as much as the novel, this isn’t enough to connect with him. So, rather like Barry Petter in Ripley Under Ground, he’s a handsome but unreadable man we can’t care enough about to get wrapped up in his story. There’s no tragic theme to his story either. So, there’s nihilism and nothing clever to hide the nihilism at the center of Deep Water. That makes it an unsatisfying film, even though it has its moments.
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