REVIEW: “The Shape of Water”

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No one can deny Guillermo del Toro’s willingness to utilize every trick in the cinematic playbook to create a magnificent visual experience. He has built worlds through several genres including dark fantasy, gothic horror, superhero, and even creature features. Yet despite his keen eye, vivid imagination, and a consistent backing from critics, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is his only film I would call truly great.

His latest movie “The Shape of Water” has generated a ton of awards buzz and is even being compared by some passionate del Toro fans to 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”. Regardless of some things it does well, “The Shape of Water” is no “Pan’s”. But enough with counterproductive comparisons. The point is “The Shape of Water” has a big following and a ton of momentum heading into Oscar season.

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“The Shape of Water” could be called many things – an offbeat fairytale, a political fable, an unconventional love story, an allegory for del Toro’s view of the world today. All of those descriptions fit to some degree or another, and del Toro plays with them with varying levels of success.

Del Toro’s story, with its pulsating Cold War vibe, takes place in 1962 Baltimore. The wondrously expressive Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, mute since birth, who lives in an apartment above an old movie house. She and her next door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) spend their time together watching old musicals and sharing their struggles. Both fit into one of del Toro’s more obvious themes – the plight of the marginalized.

Elisa works the night shift as a janitor at a secret government facility along with her close friend Zelda (a very good Octavia Spencer) who also fits within the marginalized theme. The facility has just acquired an “asset” pulled from a South American river – a tall, gilled amphibian-man accompanied by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). He is there to oversee the study of the creature and he’s clearly the film’s chief antagonist. Shannon is great and it’s a role he could probably do in his sleep. And as you would expect he is completely committed.

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But while undeniably menacing, Shannon (of no fault of his own) is also terribly on the nose. Much of del Toro’s more cynical point of view is encapsulated in Shannon’s character. He’s written to fit the mean old-fashioned Red State stereotype and through him del Toro gets to comment on religion, race and a host of other topics. But there is no subtlety whatsoever. You can practically hear del Toro beating his pulpit through much of Shannon’s dialogue.

Elisa’s curiosity and empathy help her to form a bond with the creature (yet another among the marginalized). She sneaks in the labratory and shares her lunch with the creature and plays it music on a portable record player. How is she able to have so much unguarded access to what is called “the most sensitive asset to ever be housed in the facility” and something we find out the Russians are after? There’s not a good answer to that, but they form a bond nonetheless. And after Elisa overhears talk of dissection, she knows she needs to bust the creature out.

As you watch you can’t help but see allusions to “The Creature From the Black Lagoon”, “King Kong” and even “Beauty and the Beast”. But del Toro pushes his creature fantasy further than any of those pictures. For some the film is genuinely romantic but I never had that sensation. The pacing doesn’t give the relationship time to germinate. And there are other things that get in the way – del Toro’s weird use of sexuality; a brief but bizarre dance number (I’ll leave it at that); and one scene which some have called the most beautiful moment in the film yet I couldn’t get over the sheer absurdity of how it played out. For me all of this underserved the romance the movie is trying to establish.

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While it has it’s narrative imperfections you can’t help but love the world del Toro visualizes. Inside the laboratory has a cold, harsh, metallic look. But outside the film takes on a gorgeous glow. Many images stand out for their beauty. It may be a bead of water dancing down a bus window or a brief camera pan across a movie house marquee right after a rain. The creature itself (played by long-time del Toro collaborator Doug Jones) is a fantastic creation made from traditional effects over CGI. Then you have Alexandre Desplat’s lovely, waltzy, heart-warming score which may be the best of the year. And of course the performances which are top-to-bottom fabulous.

It’s tough to know where to land on “The Shape of Water”. On one side you have a world so beautifully visualized, an enchanting classic movie vibe, top-notch performances, and a score that swept me away. On the other hand you have some glaring storytelling issues – an underserved romance, heavy-handed messaging that spells out instead of engaging, peculiar injections of nudity and graphic violence (sorry kids), and key scenes undercut by their goofiness. Yes, I know this is a fantasy picture and maybe I should be more imaginative, but when I’m thinking about these things as the movie plays – that’s a bummer. But did I mention how pretty the world is?

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

39 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Shape of Water”

    • I think parts of it is charming. But I wanted to like it more. But some of del Toro’s choices kept pushing me away. For me it became an exercise of ‘how much can I overlook’.

      • I understand. I didn’t care for the masturbation scene and I didn’t like her daydream of dancing around with it on the dance floor. I think Magical Realism is so strange that if you don’t switch off and forget realism, it is hard to suspend disbelief.
        I sure loved the acting!

      • That’s a really good point. You do have to be able to flip a certain switch and go with these kinds of stories. It’s funny, usually I can. You’re right about the masturbation scenes. I found them bizarre and pointless. But I also agree on the acting. Everyone is superb! Great ensemble.

  1. I would give the film a bit more credit for the production design and performances, but you are absolutely correct on the heavy-handed themes. The scene with Shannon and his wife is superfluous and exists only to make the character more deeply awful. Since nothing is realistic in the storyline, I can’t take anything seriously. I just enjoyed the pretty pictures.

    • Oh I’m with you on the production design and performances. In fact those two things absolutely carry the picture. Totally agree about Shannon’s home scenes. I think it’s definitely meant to make him look more despicable. I also think it’s del Toro’s offering more heavy-handed commentary on the starchy white Norman Rockwell view of America. It was too obvious and over-the-top for me.

  2. Nice review Keith, although I am a big fan of The Shape of Water. It certainly isn’t a flawless picture, with the screenplay being the film’s greatest weakness. But no one does visuals quite as spectacularly as Del Toro, and both Sally Hawkins and especially Richard Jenkins’ performance are really good.

    • 100% agree on the visuals and the performances. As I mentioned to someone else, for me it became an exercise in how much I could overlook storywise. Some of it was just too much.

  3. A fine and honest review, sir. I fancy this one but as you mention, no Del Toro film has come close Pans (and I doubt ever will) but I was hoping for something close to it. I’ll go in with reservations.

    • Thanks Mark. There’s no denying the movie looks incredible. Del Toro certainly hasn’t lost his knack for that. But his storytelling is a bit messy. Several holes in logic you have to just go with. It wasn’t that easy for me.

  4. Ouch! I’m still over here waiting for my theater to get it in the first place. I’ve adjusted my expectations quite a bit after seeing the first trailer.

    • Still waiting for it??? Good grief! Why can’t they just release the movies for us all to see instead of spreading them out as long as they do?!?!

    • Glad to hear I’m not completely alone. And I really wanted to go all in with it. But it constantly pushed be back with some pretty glaring flaws. I think it’s the Best Picture frontrunner at the Oscars. I just don’t see it.

    • Thanks so much. I really, really wanted to love it and definitely think highly of the visuals, the score and the performances. But for me del Toro’s storytelling had some big holes in it. Ultimately I just couldn’t take all the leaps he was asking me to.

  5. Great review, and plenty of fair criticisms. Strangely enough, this is the only del Toro film that I flat-out loved. Typically, I have the same issues with his previous work that you laid out here.

  6. Not seen it yet but my expectations have dropped a bit after reading your piece. I agree that Del Toro is a talent but he hasn’t always hit the mark. Generally I like a lot of what he does and his approach to filmmaking. When he’s on fire his films are as good as anyone.

    • Thanks for the comments Dan! This movie has so much momentum over here heading into the Oscars. I find it a bit baffling. It does some things really well, but it has some pretty big issues that I couldn’t get past.

  7. IMO this is the most over-hyped movie of 2017. It is an example of auteurism gone mad. Words like entertaining, charming, and whimsical come to mind; the label ‘masterpiece’ debases the medium of film.

    • Calling it a ‘masterpiece’ does feel crazy. It does some things really well, but it has way too many issues for me to overlook. But it sure has a lot of hype heading into the Oscars.

  8. I want to see this when it comes out where I am. Mainly because it’s been talked about a lot and I want to give my opinion. I liked your review here, Keith.

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