Mainstream film and TV productions rarely get bikes right. Probably the last American movie to lend cycling any verisimilitude was Breaking Away in 1979. Since then, the bicycle has mostly served to establish a protagonist as either a renegade and outcast (Quicksilver, Premium Rush) or a socially and emotionally stunted man-child (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, 40-Year-Old Virgin). And to be clear, I am in no way impugning Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, which is objectively the greatest movie ever made.
Nevertheless, as someone who has devoted my life to the study of the bicycle in popular culture, I recently watched the newly released psychological thriller Deep Water with deep fascination–not because it’s any good (it isn’t), but because it marks the first time the very au courant gravel bike has made an appearance in a feature film. In this sense, the movie’s spring 2022 release on a streaming platform near you represents a watershed moment for riding drop-bar bikes over very small rocks, if not for cycling as a whole, and now that you can find gravel bikes in both Walmart and feature films, it’s fair to say they’ve officially become part of the zeitgeist.
As for the movie, Deep Water stars Ben Affleck (Gigli) and Ana de Armas (too young to have been in Gigli) and is directed by the guy who made Fatal Attraction, the 1987 movie that defined all women by two archetypes: naive spouses and bunny-boiling psychopaths. Deep Water seems to be an attempt on the director’s part to turn this notion on its ear, as it’s about a guy whose younger wife taunts him with her repeated infidelities. Affleck is sort of an introverted weirdo, and we know this because he has two hobbies most Americans will find equally creepy: keeping a snail farm in his basement and riding bikes.
If Hollywood treated other sports like they treated cycling, we’d see characters playing baseball with basketballs and hockey sticks. To wit: even though Affleck obviously rides a gravel bike (specifically an Ibis, if you look closely), he repeatedly refers to it as a “mountain bike” and says he is going “mountain biking.” Sure, cynical old-timers love to point out that today’s gravel bikes are basically yesterday’s cross-country mountain bikes, but it’s extremely unlikely the filmmakers were going for subversive commentary about marketing trends in cycling. Furthermore, Affleck’s on-the-bike attire is entirely wrong for an enthusiast of either gravel biking or mountain biking. No camo-print Lycra, no performance flannel, no action jorts. Instead, he dresses like a Bay Area lawyer visiting Whole Foods.
Granted, as moviegoers, we must be willing to suspend our disbelief, especially when it comes to depictions of cycling. (And I can only imagine snail enthusiasts have to be similarly tolerant.) Fine, Affleck’s character rides around on an Ibis helmetless and in a fleece vest. Sure, when not riding his gravel bike, he tends to his snails instead of composing discursive internet postings about tire pressure and the relative benefits of 700c versus 650b wheelsets. However, it is utterly impossible to overlook the sheer egregiousness of the fact that his gravel bike doesn’t even have a handlebar bag on it, which is like having your main character drive around in a car without a hood. Gravelistas always have handlebar bags on their bikes. Always. You can only stretch credulity too far.
To its credit, the movie does somewhat confound our expectations. For example, Affleck not only rides a bike but also allows his wife cheat on him, so we’re clearly supposed to see him as weak and ineffectual. However, [SPOILER ALERT!] he soon begins murdering his wife’s suitors, so take that, society! Also, the film eventually introduces another character who is even more weak and ineffectual than Affleck, which we know because his vehicle is even more emasculating than a bicycle. (It’s an old Subaru Outback, which ranks just above the Prius on the media masculinity hierarchy.) Indeed, the film’s denouement is a mildly suspenseful gravel bike vs. Subaru high-speed chase that ends with the Outback driver launching himself into a quarry and to his death, thus ending both his attempts to reveal Affleck as a killer and his presumably tortured and expensive relationship with his car’s leaking head gaskets. While the film is ostensibly set in New Orleans, the chase represents perhaps the most Vermonty moment in cinematic history.
Will the typical movie viewer remember Deep Water for, well, anything? Probably not. Nevertheless, as the first move with a gravel-grinding subplot, it is a significant contribution to the “movies with bikes in them” canon. Moreover, it is a testament to the sheer utility of the gravel bike as both vehicle and plot device, because few other bicycles could have taken Affleck deep into the woods so quickly and efficiently. (Just try murdering someone in the forest and then returning to the scene of the crime on your aero road bike.)
I’m not expecting a sequel to Deep Water, but in the event they decide to make one, I’d like the producers to know I’m available as a consultant. I know a lot about this stuff, I’m just saying. Have your people call my people.
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