Movie Review: The Shape of Water.
Guillermo Del Toro crafts a fish out of water love story with an actual fish, but I wish it had been weirder than that sounds.
To preface this review, fans of this movie are going to see this as quite negative, and even casual readers may find my final take to be akin to splitting hairs. The Shape of Water is a really good movie from a really good director and features some very very good acting. Del Toro’s visual flair for setting and style are on full display, and they integrate well with the story. If this movie hadn’t been nominated for an Oscar, I wouldn’t have much more to say than that. As it WAS nominated for an Oscar, I watched it with a much sterner list of expectations and left slightly dissatisfied. It’s a double edged sword when you’re the director of such amazing films as Pan’s Labyrinth: anything less than mind blowing feels like a let down!
The Shape of Water (2018).
Elisa is a mute woman who works in a classified government facility during the height of the Cold War. The latest avenue of research is a mysterious aquatic creature from South America whose ability to breath on land and in the water may put America first in the space race. The creature is under the supervision of Agent Strickland, a merciless man who abuses it. Elisa sees it as a fellow outcast and shows it compassion. They form a close bond that is threatened by Strickland and his orders to understand the creature’s biology, by any means possible.
Director Guillermo Del Toro does an impressive job of creating a setting that is memorable, recognizable, yet still alien. This version of Baltimore in 1962 is rich in details, many of which are exaggerated or grotesque. Even a ubiquitous franchise of pie restaurants is made to feel vaguely monstrous. Many films and media re-imagine this era of Americana, usually as a source of exuberant nostalgia or bleak dystopia, but Del Toro uses his stylized version of the 1960’s to create a feeling of emotional frustration and unease.
The setting contrasts nicely with our cast. In an era where a happy and prosperous facade of normalcy was omnipresent, we focus here on people who don’t fit in. Elisa is set apart by her disability. She is also an orphan, a glaring deficiency in a society obsessed with the “nuclear family.” Her neighbor and friend Giles is a closeted homosexual and artist who is forced to squander his talent making advertisements for Jell-O and to fantasize about being able to ask the local pie shop waiter out on a date. Elisa’s confidant and co-worker Zelda is routinely and casually treated as sub-human for being African American, and she struggles in a marriage where her husband has responded to society’s abuse by shutting down. It’s not surprising that they find a kinship with a marginalized creature.
One of the biggest delights in The Shape of Water is how roundly excellent the acting is. Sally Hawkins is winsome and sympathetic as Elisa, deftly conveying her desires and longings without the aid of spoken dialogue. Elisa is one of the most fascinating characters in film that I’ve come across, and Hawkins deserves high praise for bringing her to life.
Richard Jenkins provides a soulful levity as Giles, and Octavia Spencer, who plays Zelda, is always a delight to watch. While Michael Shannon’s turn as the villainous Strickland didn’t defy expectations (Shannon is nearly always a bad guy in recent movies) it was a solid performance. The only piece of the puzzle that didn’t quite fit for me was Doug Jones’ performance as the creature.
Fish Out of Water.
A long time collaborator with Del Toro, Jones has created many memorable characters for his movies. The creatures from Pan’s Labyrinth, the monsters from Crimson Peak, and many of the main characters from Hellboy were all much more memorable than the amphibian from The Shape of Water. Heck, Jones has even played a better fish-man in his career as Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies. In this film the creature really doesn’t have much personality. He’s semi-bestial and only uses the most rudimentary sign language. He’s kind of a mysterious and dangerous “other” that Elisa invests with her hopes. Besides a nice dance sequence, there’s not too much for Jones to do.
Knew it All Along.
My only major criticism for this film is that its fairly formulaic. Yes, a movie about a mute woman falling in love with, and having sex with, a giant fish-man is formulaic. Besides the novelty that the characters bring to their roles, the broad strokes are nothing new. They’re the same plot points as numerous other movies about people discovering something alien or non-human, and learning something valuable about human nature from it. It’s E.T. with sex, Harry and the Hendersons with gills, Free Willy with a touch of Del Toro’s macabre sensibility. As soon as Elisa forms an attachment with the amphibian, you know exactly where the plot is headed.
Something Old, Something New.
The Shape of Water is a good movie that just misses being sublime. The characters are interesting and very well played. The visuals and sound work all come together to create a film that feels familiar yet slightly alien. The story moves along at a decent pace, though there were a few parts where the film could have been less indulgent and saved time. This feels like an evolution of Del Toro’s style instead of a breath-taking revolution, like his best films have been. I was kind of hoping to leave the theater a little more shocked or challenged after watching a woman and fish-man love story, but you can’t always get everything you want.