Why Did Deep Water End like That?

A lot of fuss has been made over Adrian Lyne’s film adaptation of Deep Water, based on the novel by The Talented Mr. Ripley scribe Patricia Highsmith. (After a score of Covid-related delays, the movie finally debuted on Hulu today.) For one, Deep Water stars early-pandemic “it” couple Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, who met during filming, fell in love, and briefly took over the internet with their matching jewelry and penchant for cardboard cut outs. They’ve since broken up, to the chagrin of paparazzi everywhere. Their movie is also billed as an “erotic psychological thriller,” promising to both titillate and shock audiences in the same vein as Lyne films like Fatal Attraction and 9 ½ Weeks. 

While Deep Water doesn’t quite reach those heights—it currently holds a 42% on Rotten Tomatoes—the ending, at least, will certainly leave you scratching your head, even if you’re familiar with Highsmith’s novel. Or maybe especially if you’ve read the book. (If you couldn’t already tell, spoilers for both the book and the movie abound from this point on, so proceed with caution.)

Highsmith’s 1957 novel centers around the miserably married couple Vic and Melinda, played by Affleck and Armas respectively in the film. Melinda engages in extra-marital affairs from time to time; Vic murders some of her lovers, undetected by the police but drawing suspicion from both Melinda and their neighbor, Don. Towards the end of the novel, Vic murders Melinda’s latest lover, Tony, by throwing him off a cliff and hiding the body in a shallow river, weighing it down with rocks. Then Vic strangles Melinda in a fit of rage and is arrested shortly after when Don shows up with the police.

While Lyne’s film is quite similar to Highsmith’s novel—down to keeping the somewhat antiquated names “Vic” and “Melinda” for its central couple—Deep Water quite literally veers into a completely different direction in its third act. Yes, de Armas still plays a bored spouse who gets to have sex with whomever she pleases, including but not limited to actors Jacob Elordi (Charley) and Finn Wittrock (Tony). Affleck, meanwhile, serves us a microwaved version of his seemingly-nice-but-maybe-a-murderer-actually Gone Girl husband. But strangely, the climactic moment of the film has little to do with the actual couple at hand.

Instead of providing any meaningful resolution or climax for Vic and Melinda’s broken relationship, the movie inexplicably decides to end with… wait for it… a high speed bike vs. car chase between Vic and Don, played by Tracy Letts. It ends when Don drives off a cliff, plunging into a ravine to his death. While this is happening, Melinda realizes that Vic has murdered Tony and is packing a bag, presumably planning to leave him. Her efforts are thwarted when their six year old daughter, Trixie, takes Melinda’s suitcase and throws it in their gorgeous pool. (Melinda and Vic are rich, by the way, because Affleck’s character invented the “computer chip” that’s used in drones—which makes no practical sense but suggests that he is a morally dubious person at best.) 

The film ends with Vic biking home to find Melinda waiting for him on the steps after Don’s death. The scene is very similar, but not exactly the same, as the one which opens the film, in which Vic bikes home and takes off his pants on the porch before entering the house (remember, it’s an erotic thriller). At the end of the movie, Vic keeps his pants on while Melinda says, “I saw Tony,” then proceeds to burn Tony’s wallet and identification. That’s it. Erotic thriller over. 

Obviously there are “reasons” for why the Deep Water screenplay, written by Zach Helm and Euphoria auteur Sam Levinson, went in a different direction from its source material. Certainly, we don’t need more violence against women on screen, and when you’ve got the Tony-winning Letts attached to your project, you obviously want to use him as much as possible. Still, a question remains: after spending nearly 120 minutes entwined in the psychosexual pas de deux of Melinda and Vic, why does the film’s climax rest on killing off Saorsie Ronan‘s nice dad from Lady Bird? Who believed that the most satisfying conclusion to an erotic thriller would be to kill off a major supporting character who doesn’t show up until about half an hour into the film?

Melinda and Vic, one could argue, get something resembling closure. Melinda effectively chooses to stay with her vengeful husband, telling him she saw Tony even though she knows he’s dead. There’s a vague, Phantom Thread-esque “that’s just what works for me and my family” element to Melinda’s decision, which she makes full well knowing that he’s murdered at least one of her lovers. But that possibility is left more or less completely unexplored by the film, in favor of [checks notes] a PSA about why it’s bad to text and drive. While Highsmith’s ending is more brutal, at least it thoroughly resolves the tension between the central couple, albeit in an awful way. 

To be fair to the filmmakers, they couldn’t have predicted that Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas would go on to date and flame out spectacularly in a year’s time—and that Affleck would then usher in a societal obsession with the early aughts by dating his former flame Jennifer Lopez once more.  How were they to know that many of us would be tuning into Deep Water to catch a glimpse of the steamy chemistry between our favorite pandemic couple that no longer is (RIP BenAna), and maybe weren’t as interested in seeing Ben Affleck bike through a forest while de Armas sort of sadly packs a suitcase?

When considering Deep Water‘s ending, and the film as a whole, it’s hard not to wonder what specifically went wrong here. In rare moments, Deep Water felt like a modern, psychosexual take on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with its unending focus on a couple that clearly hates each other. But ultimately, the closest thing we get to George and Martha is the fact that Tracy Letts won a Tony for playing George in 2013. 

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