Maybe another actor would have been celebrated for demonstrating range. Maybe another performer would have received endless kudos for playing someone so seemingly pathetic. But while watching Deep Water, the new psychological thriller about a troubled married couple, I was struck by just how obvious a choice it was to have Ben Affleck play the lead. He’s Vic, a super-rich retiree whose wife Melinda (Ana de Armas) tells him early on in the film that she loves him — but also insists on having “friends,” handsome young men on the side with whom she engages in very public affairs. Other men might be enraged, but Vik is eerily calm about the whole thing. They go to parties, and he watches her canoodle with other guys. Then he and Melinda go home together, doting on their adorable daughter Trixie. Vic tolerates her indiscretions, although Deep Water leaves his reasoning teasingly mysterious.
But for me, it wasn’t that mysterious at all — Vic is this way because he’s played by Ben Affleck.
Turning 50 in August, the actor/writer/director/walking meme has inspired endless gossip and speculation — because of his drinking, because of his rocky marriage to ex-wife Jennifer Garner — and he’s often dropped the mask of celebrity to let people know what a mess he is. Despite being a two-time Oscar-winner and a major star, Affleck has always seemed a little fragile, a little too needy. When he dated Jennifer Lopez in the early 2000s, the world mocked his cameo in her “Jenny on the Block” video, finding it demeaning how he obediently applied sunscreen to her suntanned body, essentially coming across as a kept man. Even before “Sad Affleck,” he never embodied much of an alpha-male demeanor — he was emotional, vulnerable, his failings and his feelings all there on the surface.
Those very qualities are very much evident in his performance in Deep Water, which isn’t a great movie but is definitely a revealing one. The film, which is streaming on Hulu, will mostly be viewed through the prism of Affleck and de Armas’ now-kaput romantic fling. And while I suppose there’s an appeal to trying to find clues into what their relationship was like by watching the film, I think it’s more valuable to read Deep Water as a kind of confessional. In the movie, Affleck plays a cuckold, a guy who those around him can’t quite understand. But Vic understands himself, and on some primal level, I believe Affleck does, too.
Deep Water is directed by Adrian Lyne, a master of the erotic thriller. Whether it’s 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal or Unfaithful, he’s been fascinated by how sex impacts individuals. Screwing is a plot point in his movies, and we learn things about his characters by what they do (or don’t do) in bed (or the hallway, or in an elevator, or…). So it’s no surprise that he’d be interested in this material, based on a 1957 Patricia Highsmith novel, which explores, without judgment, a marriage most people would deem “unusual.” And while Vic and Melinda’s relationship is far from perfect, for the most part it works for them. Until it doesn’t. And then some bad stuff starts happening.
Vic made his millions in an unscrupulous way: From what we can gather, he developed the technology that helped give the world drones, which turned warfare into a video game. At one point, Vic is questioned by an acquaintance regarding whether he feels guilty about how he got wealthy, but Vic’s response is strikingly blasé. It’s an early warning sign about this man’s moral compass — he doesn’t let anything bother him, whether it’s computerized combat or his wife’s affairs. Every problem has a solution.
For much of Deep Water, Vic is passive, silently eavesdropping in the distance as he tries to determine how far Melinda’s latest dalliance is progressing. (One of Lyne’s strongest creative choices is to never show her affairs — occasionally, though, we’ll see Vic’s imagination of what they might look like.) De Armas is superb at playing this confident, manipulative woman, egging on her husband who she constantly berates for being dull and unemotional.
Does she have these affairs, in part, to get a rise out of him? Sure seems that way: Deep Water features a passionate, hungry sex scene between Vic and Melinda after she’s been hanging out with another man, the unfaithfulness eliciting a spark between husband and wife. Vic doesn’t seem like a traditional cuck who gets off on his wife’s infidelity — instead, it appears to be an arrangement they’ve agreed upon, a tense truce in order to preserve the marriage. Vic lets his wife do what she wants, mildly explaining to their friends that he doesn’t wish to tamp down who she is as a person. It’s meant to sound enlightened, but it comes across as a canned response — a way to sidestep the inadequacy he feels about Melinda constantly chasing after younger, more vital men. Vic keeps up appearances, but Sad Affleck informs the performance.
Just don’t feel too bad for Vic. Near the start of Deep Water, he encounters her latest paramour, mentioning nonchalantly that Melinda used to have another “friend” — Martin, a man who went missing somewhat recently. Vic tells the guy that he killed Martin, his announcement so convincing that we wonder if Vic might actually be serious. I don’t want to spoil the film’s juicy, tawdry twists, but let’s just say that Deep Water ends up having a surprisingly high body count — and that suspicion starts circling around Vic. Could the mild-mannered dude who lets his wife fuck around on him really be capable of murder?
At this stage of his career, Affleck has a fixed onscreen persona that he carries with him from role to role. He specializes in depicting earnest men, often heart on their sleeve — regular dudes who mean well and are doing their best. His heel-turn role in last year’s underrated The Last Duel was such a treat precisely because Affleck was playing against type, but the closest precedent to what he pulls off in Deep Water is 2014’s Gone Girl, in which he played a husband who seems like an abusive monster but may, in fact, have been hustled by his wife the entire time.
In that David Fincher thriller, he subverted his nice-guy routine to portray someone potentially very sinister — by comparison, Vic is a timid man whose colder nature is a secret he keeps to himself, a way of getting back at a wife who has the upper hand in their relationship. We get the sense that Vic has never been subservient to anyone — until this beautiful woman came into his life and instantly had his number. He’ll play her game in order to keep her, but over the course of Deep Water, he’ll change the rules without her knowing it.
While watching Deep Water, it’s interesting to think about Affleck and his old buddy Matt Damon. Years ago, Damon was in his own Patricia Highsmith adaptation, The Talented Mr. Ripley, playing a charming sociopath. It’s telling how different their portrayals are. Damon was all nerdish and ingratiating as Tom Ripley, a weaponized version of his own people-pleasing personality. In Deep Water, Affleck plays a middle-aged success who can’t shake the feeling that he’s perceived as a fool — it’s not hard to see Affleck in the character, the movie star who’s often stumbling in public, trying to maintain some measure of dignity despite his every movement going viral. When Affleck and de Armas were a couple, people commented on the age gap, but in Deep Water she completely (and convincingly) dominates him, showing how Melinda has thoroughly wrapped this older man around his finger. He tries to make jokes to act like it doesn’t bother him, but she knows: He ain’t going anywhere.
Affleck’s fans have long appreciated his fallibility and candor, which make him more relatable than most airbrushed celebrities — the more he fucks up, the more beloved he becomes. Deep Water utilizes this quality quite effectively: We never condemn Melinda, but we’re in Vic’s corner, which proves to be an untenable position as he does increasingly more unscrupulous things over the course of the film. In real life, Ben Affleck has often been the punchline, the guy dating the woman people thought was out of his league. Intentionally or not, that reality plays into Deep Water, with Vic knowing he’ll never be able to control this unfaithful wife who torments him so. The film sometimes flies off the rails or gets too cheesy, but Affleck’s controlled, unnerving turn leaves us riveted.
Even cucks have their dark side.