What's with All the Snails in 'Deep Water'?

The snails are not! for! eating!

deep water ana de armas ben affleck
Image by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist / Photo by 20th Century Studios
Image by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist / Photo by 20th Century Studios

You may notice, while watching Adrian Lyne's somewhat erotic thrillerDeep Water, which pits Ana de Armas against Ben Affleck in a battle for sexual supremacy, a persistent motif that slimes and slithers its way between scenes of violent marital strife. Ben Affleck's character Vic needed a hobby after he retired from military drone chip manufacturing, and so, for reasons left mysterious in the film, he decided to keep snails. Every now and then we see him sneak into his Snail Room to decompress from whatever terrible revelation he's just had about his wife Melinda's infidelity, and tend lovingly to his gastropod pets, which he keeps in plant-filled glass terrariums periodically misted by a complex series of hoses.

In case you're halfway through the film and wondering whether the snails will have anything more to do with the movie's actual plot—they don't. Vic forbids his wife's houseguests from cooking them: "The snails are not for eating!" he snaps. He does not feed his unsuspecting victims' decomposing flesh to them, Hannibal-style. He doesn't use them to poison anybody, even though he does explain at one point that snails raised to be served as escargot must be starved before they're prepared, or the contents of their stomachs can poison anyone who eats them. So then what, aside from giving a weird guy an even weirder pastime, is the purpose of Deep Water's slimy co-stars?

Patricia Highsmith, who wrote the book Deep Water (and The Price of Salt, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, and many others) was obsessed with snails. Legend has it that she once saw a pair of snails in a New York fish market that were either fighting or copulating (the answer, as it turns out, is both), and took them home in a fishbowl to watch their strange interaction. This marked the beginning of her fascination with snails of all kinds, raising hundreds of them in her garden in England, bringing them gleefully to house parties in her purse, and smuggling them illegally from England to France. Highsmith's preoccupation with these odd creatures fits in with her well-documented love of the macabre and the grotesque, which is easy to find in her fiction.

Highsmith's snails eventually found their way into her writing in a short horror story titled "The Snail-Watcher," which Lyne used to characterize Deep Water's Vic. In "The Snail-Watcher," a man named Peter Knoppert, like Highsmith, caught a couple of snails engaged in their unique form of sexual activity, and raised their children and their children's children as the snails exponentially reproduced. His neighbors and family look askance at his passion for his snails, but they soon become the only thing that makes Peter Knoppert happy, until one night when he realizes that the snail population has gotten out of control and his demise among the swirling shells and slimy bodies is described in Lovecraftian detail.

No one's death in the film is quite as horrific as what Highsmith describes in her story, but the other elements—Knoppert's growing obsession, his snail terrariums, his misting system, his misanthropic nature—are there. Where the entirety of "The Snail-Watcher" is focused on a somewhat fantastical descent into madness and death, Deep Water uses the animals mainly to illustrate their caretaker's weirdo nature. It's funny simply to imagine someone who looks like Ben Affleck lovingly tending to his aquariums full of snails.

That's not to say that the snails aren't thematically appropriate. As someone who delights in all things insectoid, Deep Water's incessant and bizarre snail motif delighted me to no end, and if you'll indulge me (which you'll have to, if you've made it this far) I will explain why.

Land snails, which are the everyday snails that you and I are most familiar with, are hermaphroditic, which means that every snail is blessed with both female and male reproductive organs, and any snail could be either male or female at any time. When snails mate, they both have to decide which will be the male and which will be the female—that is, which snail will simply provide the materials necessary to fertilize the eggs and which will be responsible for making and laying them. They do this by entwining their bodies and literally fighting, using an organ made of hard calcium and shaped like a dart called a "gypsobelum" to stab each other. Whichever snail's stab is most effective becomes the male. After this is accomplished, the actual copulation begins, during which both snails use both types of reproductive organs to exchange sperm. This process can go on for hours. They are, after all, snails.

As someone who, for some reason, knows all about this, I couldn't help but read a lot into the snail imagery in Deep Water: flirting as a path towards danger and sex as an act of violence. Vic and Melinda are enmeshed with one another but rarely consummate their relationship, too preoccupied with keeping out of the range of one another's (figurative) darts. Nevertheless, they both use sex to enact revenge on each other, Melinda parading her new partners around in public and bloodthirsty Vic hunting them down, a cold war with no end in sight.

In the wild, resource management is key, and sex can literally be a matter of life and death: Some snails who draw the female straw never recover from using their bodily resources for the demanding task of making eggs. Being female, even for a short amount of time, puts everything at risk, so the act of courtship becomes a battle to be the one who ends up, metaphorically speaking, on top.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.