Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
As someone who experienced all the previous Adrian Lyne features as they came out – what a feeling! – I think I’ve earned the right to spend some time detailing the problems with his first film in 20 years, Deep Water. There are two shots in particular that provide a diagram to the mendacity of Lyne’s style overall, so let’s concentrate there, and then follow up with two ideas that are quintessentially Lyneian in their dopiness.
To orient ourselves: Deep Water is adapted by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson from a Patricia Highsmith novel. Ben Affleck plays Vic, a man retired with tech money from working on a drone device that kills people in war; this accounts for the movie’s fabulous trappings, rendered with Lyne’s usual magazine-layout flash. (This guy was Nancy Meyers before Nancy Meyers came along.) Vic and his wife Melinda (Ana de Armas) have a little daughter, and Melinda is an unquenchable horndog who flaunts her affairs right in front of Vic’s face, often in the midst of the endless series of parties their cringing friends enjoy on a regular basis. One of Melinda’s past flings is missing and determined to be a homicide victim. Is Vic capable of murder? This is the movie’s main interest, and also the source of interest for an acquaintance (Tracy Letts, stupidly wasted here) curious about how Melinda’s lovers seem to perish.
Those two shots. One comes early, in the aftermath of the first of the party sequences, as Vic and a drunk Melinda go to their car. The camera gazes down the street, their car in the right foreground, as they pause to talk after Vic opens the passenger door. It’s raining, and the car is covered with beaded water, and the lighting is so elaborate that we’re able to see sheets of mist in the background—not pouring, but wafting. It’s a great-looking shot, as we expect from Lyne (the cinematographer is Eigil Bryld), whose career in TV commercials is never very far from his image-making in movies; as Melinda leans against the car in her insouciant way and pulls at her cigarette, we can marvel at the way the now-open car door creates an interesting dynamic in the foreground, the pattern of the water drops on the window catching the light, and when Melinda exhales her smoke into all the backlighting, the smoke is both pretty and toxic, just like her. It’s all very slick, ideal for a 30-second cigarette advert, if people still made those.
Did you notice that part about Melinda leaning up against the car? She needs to do that to express her louche personality, her drunkenness, and to give the very handsome composition its balance. It also makes no sense. The car is wet, covered with rainwater. Her expensive dress is going to be soaked, and stay that way for the ride home—she may be drunk, but she’s not that drunk. I don’t think she’d lean against the car, but it has to happen, because the composition demands it, and the superficial good looks of an Adrian Lyne film demand it.
The other shot takes place at another party, where Melinda has been elaborately making out with her latest conquest (Jacob Elordi) in the backyard pool. The boy stays in the pool, and after some business inside the house (because it’s raining, again), we go back to the pool to discover him floating there lifeless. Melinda sounds the alarm from inside, and Lyne cuts to a shot below the surface of the pool. The pool is full of chlorine-turquoise light, of course, and there’s the corpse of the dead man hanging there, and then the surface is broken by a bunch of men cannonballing into the water, which looks exactly the way you think it looks.
Is there a reason for the shot to exist, other than the fact that it looks cool? And it does look cool, even if we’ve seen it a million times before: Someone plunging into the pool, stirring up a cloud of photogenic bubbles, creating a groovy little “action painting” that then morphs into furthering the story (or, just as often, exists in a montage set to a song, as in Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, to grab a recent instance, where—however familiar the technique might be—at least you can justify the imagery as expressing the joy and boldness of one character as she seizes the moment and simultaneously takes the lid off her timorous nature and her sexual orientation). Is the shot in Deep Water justified in any way? There’s nobody down there but the dead guy, so there’s no POV being served. Maybe that’s okay, maybe the shot can just be there, given the film’s title and other watery imagery. But it lands in the sequence as a kind of punchline, a comical rim shot—which feels unsavory, in retrospect, given the circumstances. It’s funny without context, it’s energy without purpose, it’s a zingy effect quickly forgotten. (See also the curious slapstick of the film’s final ten minutes, a cheap and garbagey send-off even for those who’ve hung in long enough to dig the genre elements of neo-noir.)
Both shots would survive nicely in an advertisement, because they don’t bear analysis, and in a commercial they wouldn’t have the burden of supposedly fitting into a serious drama about trust and obsession. I offer them as a measure of how incapable Lyne is at anything other than effect. Sometimes his effects are well mounted, and they look pretty—and that’s it. There are occasional exceptions, such as Diane Lane’s ride on the Long Island train after an assignation in Unfaithful, the erotic experience playing out on her face—and indeed, there’s a fine shot early in Deep Water, of a previously unseen Melinda watching Vic arrive at home, bearing an ambiguous expression of scrutiny. Ambiguity takes the highway after that, as Lyne goes his usual route of sensation for its own sake.
And the two dopey things I mentioned? One is the damn dog—it became a joke long ago that Lyne would drag a dog into a movie just to get some inane reaction shots out of its adorable presence, a device so hammer-headed it makes the boiled bunny from Fatal Attraction seem like the Lubitsch touch. Just as I thought to myself, “I guess there won’t be a dog in this one,” Vic and his daughter adopt their puppy, after which it plays a shockingly small role in eliciting audience sighs. The other thing is the song. Vic and daughter sing along to one while in the car, telling the audience in no uncertain terms that they are bonded, which is reassuring when Mom is a psycho slut from hell. (This is not my opinion of Melinda, but the way the movie presents her, despite de Armas’s occasional stabs at conveying some interior life.) The song they sing is Leo Sayer’s megahit from 1977, “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,” which was presumably chosen to tie into an undeveloped thread about Vic’s reluctance to dance. It can’t just be any song—Lyne is too literal-minded for that. It is interminable. It is cloying. It is a scene by Adrian Lyne.
July 29, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.