Guillermo del Toro’s latest, The Shape of Water, reminds me of so many of the director’s other films. It contains lush, gorgeous, fantastic elements that astound, tease the imagination, and take your breath away. But it also contains flat, bland, lame-ass choices and needless grandstanding that kills momentum and waters down the impact of what’s otherwise a lovely love letter to classic movies and sweeping cinematic romance.
At it’s peak, The Shape of Water presents an intersectional tale about how, no matter our differences, we’re all the same, we’re all in this together, and your fight is my fight. In the valleys, it becomes a turgid, underdeveloped love story. And because the entire film hinges on this affair, that’s a problem.
A dark, dreamy fantasy fable, the story takes place deep in the heart of the Cold War. Mute cleaning woman Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) goes about her daily routine. She wakes up, eats corn flakes, rubs one out in the bathtub, makes sure Giles (Richard Jenkins)—her closeted, starving-artist neighbor—eats, and heads to her night-shift job scrubbing down a Baltimore research facility with her spunky BFF, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). It’s all very routine, until vicious government stooge Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) shows up with a humanoid creature (Doug Jones) dredged from a South American river. Elisa falls for the imprisoned beast and things progress from there.
With a cast like this, you might expect the acting to be the strong suit of The Shape of Water, and you’d be right. Shannon’s cruel, venomous goon hides his creeps and kinks beneath a veneer of faux morality—it’s reminiscent of his character from the early seasons of Boardwalk Empire, using a wholesome, religious exterior to conceal twists and snarls. He touches on over-the-top villain territory, but Shannon chews scenery in that marvelous way only he can.
Spencer veers dangerously near sassy black best friend territory on occasion, but Zelda’s wry practicality and steadfast support balance the character. And, similar to Shannon, this centers her when she could easily have spiraled into caricature. Richard Jenkins offers the most emotional investment of the supporting players, filling many roles for Elisa. He’s a sounding board, a lost puppy to care for, and a mirror image of her own arc to drive home the “to thine own self be true” theme. And Jenkins again proves himself one of the great character actors of his generation, if not all time.
Even amidst the other extraordinary performances, this is the Sally Hawkins show. Her silent showcase is a powerhouse. She’s wistful, a dreamer who sees the magic in the simple things. But she also has an antiauthoritarian streak and conveys a spectacular range without every saying a word—signing her words, her hands are as expressive as any vocalization.
Working with a frequent co-conspirator in the form of cinematographer Dan Lausten (Crimson Peak), del Toro crafts a loving homage to classic cinema. The camera pushes in, pulls away in dramatic fashion, and soars through the meticulous, perfectly conceived and constructed sets. They stage gorgeous underwater ballets between Elisa and the creature. The framing, the choreography, and especially Alexandre Desplat’s score tip the cap to film history. You can practically feel the director’s heart swelling with how much he adores movies.
This adoration, however, also gets in the way. The same care, detail, and devotion isn’t necessarily given to fleshing out the romance twixt Elisa and the monster. It’s obvious that del Toro loves monsters. This is clear both from his previous filmography and the oft-stated inspiration he derived from The Creature from the Black Lagoon—a fact readily apparent in the character design.
But with this blind love comes, well, blindness. He starts out in love with the creature; he views it as a tragic, romantic figure. Problem is, he takes for granted that the audience feels the same way and never makes them see the creature in a similar light. It’s a big hurdle, and because the entire film relies on this, it’s an issue that the script doesn’t sell the romantic bond. Elisa sees the creature, feels bad as Strickland tortures it with a cattle prod, and falls in love with the snap of a finger and a few hard-boiled eggs. The film glosses over the love story, in a hurry to move on, and though Hawkins gives it every little bit, it too often rings false and hollow.
While the Cold War setting gives Shape of Water an enjoyable element of exaggerated paranoia, it’s another clunky choice that clogs the plot. The primary motivation behind studying this creature is to use its unique physiology as a boon to the space program and beat those dastardly Ruskies to the moon. But a running side story where the Russians want to abscond with the monster themselves adds little but distraction and overly convenient plot mechanics. Though, however unnecessary, this thread does serve as a delivery system for a fantastic Michael Stuhlbarg turn as an empathetic scientist. It’s nice, but not substantial enough to justify the energy expenditure.
Watching The Shape of Water reminds me that, while I always like Guillermo del Toro’s movies, I only love a handful (and his endless enthusiasm for film, which is absolutely infectious). I maintain The Devil’s Backbone is his best, that Crimson Peak is criminally underrated, and that Blade 2 is a damn masterpiece despite what that Io9 article says. And yes, I have watched it in the last year. (Also, I adore Pacific Rim, though I readily concede it’s not the greatest film.) The Hellboy movies are fine, though I don’t share the same affection for them that so many others do. And I have a similar stance on Pan’s Labyrinth.
And it appears I’m destined to feel the same way about The Shape of Water. It contains much to admire—the fastidious design, any number of award-worthy performances, and imagination and ambition for days. But it also contains gaffs, a predictable arc, and missteps—including a real doozy late in the game; I get what they’re trying to do, but it does not work. It’s fine, and it lands much harder for some viewers than others. But while I can appreciate the artfulness and passion, The Shape of Water never truly coalesces, handing viewers a collection of admirable parts but a whole that’s left wanting. [Grade: B]