The Shape of Water

February 15, 2018 by  

Guillermo del Toro always has a way of blending fantasy with reality, and did it to perfection with “Pan’s Labyrinth”. Since then he’s been hit or miss; but here, he takes a familiar story and tells it predictably–yet, it is still an amicable and poignant film.

A mute, lonely woman, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), works at a top secret government lab, as a custodian. Her only “friends” are her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Giles, her next-door neighbor at an apartment above a movie theater. Giles, also lonely, paints advertisements for a living (or, attempted living), and has many cats. Zelda has a husband; but, as it’s revealed through monologues shared with Elisa, Zelda is just as lonely as they are. The three of their lives are affected when a security command brings in a mysterious sea creature, headed by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Strickland is your typical villain–he’s haughty, mistreating, and patronizing. He’s also quite racist and sexist. But that’s understandable, given the time period–it’s the early 1960’s.

The creature (played by Doug Jones) is a fascination for Elisa, who comes to befriend it as well. It, always referred to as “The Asset”, is presumably male. Elisa begins speaking with him, feeding him eggs, and teaching him basic sign language. She is not caught doing this, except by another mysterious scientist there, named Robert “Bob” Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is also curious about studying the creature’s habits. There is a hitch, though, since the creature was only captured to be vivisected. Bob and Elisa certainly don’t want this to happen, so Elisa decides to “steal” the creature away to her home.

Giles, who desperately wants a relationship with someone (he is gay, and of course that is shunned in society at that time), wants the best for Elisa and wants her to be happy. Things get a little complicated when she brings the creature back, and he tussles with Giles’ kitties. For those who are cat-lovers, you may be disturbed by what unfolds there.

Speaking of which, there are some bold liberties del Toro takes with such a formulaic story. The subplot with Bob being involved with the Russians is the most plausible and very intriguing, even though it’s still predictable. But there are moments, such as the cat scene, that can just take someone out of the picture emotionally. We want to be attached to these characters, and feel them. There are some moments that are either too gruesome, or too racy, or just too over-the-top, to be easily digested. And this story seemingly should be easy digested. I realize del Toro likes to take risks, that’s one of the things I admire most about him as a filmmaker. But sometimes, going too far doesn’t yield the desired effect of breaking new ground. It just comes off as exploitation. In an exploitative film, it works fine. Like Eli Roth’s “The Green Inferno”. We expect to see blood and gore, and we do see more than the average blood & gore film. And we see more than what human eyes should be exposed to. But it’s set up that way. So when we see it, maybe it’s shocking. But it’s not surprising.

“The Shape of Water” has some great performances. Octavia Spencer just nails the (perhaps typecast) role of the sympathetic friend. She’s always a joy to watch. Michael Shannon is great as the stereotypical bad guy, with a nice little touch of having a sweet tooth (to cheap candy, which I think is an important aside). Also, an affinity for “the new car”, driving around to show off. Early in the film, his fingers are bit off by the creature. Elisa finds them, and doctors re-attach. The results get more amusing as the film goes on, and serves as a nice metaphor for his state of mind, and sanity. And, possibly, how two rotten fingers spoil the whole batch.

I actually was not a huge fan of Hawkins’ performance, however. I felt it a bit self-indulgent and her character wasn’t that well fleshed out. We know she’s lonely and wants to love–but there’s nothing in her approach that seems forlorn or yearning. She seems almost content throughout. Certainly we feel her pain when the creature is in danger or threatened; but that’s just the natural reaction to seeing someone or something hurt. Richard Jenkins as her neighbor Giles is pleasant as well, and him being homosexual in a time of homophobia gives us a sense of sympathy for him. In his case, he’s as excluded as the sea creature. Of course, Jones does his best with the creature character. But, there is not much he can do outside of giving us the basic performance. He also sort of falls flat, with no third dimension. Maybe that’s not as important, but I would’ve liked to see some character development with The Asset as well. Stuhlbarg gives a strong performance as Bob, who certainly cares for the creature, and for Elisa’s ability to take care of him. He’s a bit weird, but likable.

Overall, the film does work with its firm and simple premise. But, I would’ve liked to see some originality when it came to the characters. The actors can bring them out of stock, but the script doesn’t give a whole lot of diversity to work with. There are plenty of nice moments, a few strange ones; and, like I mentioned earlier, some that might take you out of the drama and emotion. That can cost points. But if the shape of water is supposed to be a heart, it’s at least a pretty picture of one.

My rating: :-)

Comments

One Response to “The Shape of Water”

  1. Lisa on September 28th, 2018 8:25 pm

    Hi Zack! Great review, and I agree about the bad guy being so perfect he’s almost cartoony. I like Del Toro’s work too. BTW – go look up the short “Mama” on YouTube. Holy crap.

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