A film review by Craig J. Koban February 13, 2018


2017, R, 123 mins.


Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito  /  Michael Shannon as Strickland  /  Octavia Spencer as Zelda  /  Richard Jenkins as Giles  /  Doug Jones as Amphibian Man  /  Michael Stuhlbarg as Mr. Robert Hoffstetler  /  Lauren Lee Smith as Elaine Strickland  /  Nick Searcy as General Hoyt  /  David Hewlett as Fleming

Written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro

I'll begin my review of the new period fantasy THE SHAPE OF WATER by saying this:  

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is a supreme cinematic visualist whose passionate enthusiasm shines through in all of his films.  

The Mexican filmmaker has carved out a career of helming one arresting film after another on a level of pure escapist imagery, whether it be BLADE II,  HELLBOY I and II, his Oscar winning PAN'S LABYRINTH, and PACIFIC RIM, and in all of those films the level of innovative and loving craftsmanship on display is frequently extraordinary in blending the fantastical and the frightening.  If anything, all of del Toro's work is endlessly captivating to look at. 

I guess, though, my longstanding problem with most of his films - and why I have so much trouble embracing them - is that his boundless enthusiasm for his underlining material often gets in the way of storytelling and thematic discipline.  This takes me, yes, to THE SHAPE OF WATER, his latest offering that once again, if anything, showcases del Toro at the absolute zenith of his craft in terms of helming a thoroughly handsome production that's as atmospherically rich and lush as anything he's previously attempted.  On a basic level, the film is  like a cross morphing of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and E.T. - THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL in telling a tale of friendship - albeit with erotic elements (more on that later) - between a mute woman and a sea monster that looks suspiciously like the one from THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, all set during the paranoia of the Cold War in the early 1960s.  I appreciated how THE SHAPE OF WATER - despite my description just then - escapes easy genre descriptors and doesn't fit neatly into Hollywood conventions and troupes, not to mention that the central storyline has honorable intentions.  Regrettably, my main misgiving with THE SHAPE OF WATER is that it lacks a solid narrative follow-through and forcibly tries to cram in far too many subplots for its own good.  And like too many of del Toro's past efforts, this well intentioned fantasy has trouble sticking to a unifying tone. 



But, man oh man, THE SHAPE OF WATER is sumptuous to look at and lose yourself in.  Opening in 1962 Baltimore during the fever point of Cold War tensions, the story introduces a government worker named Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a lonely and meek mannered mute woman that works as a cleaning lady at a top secret lab for the U.S. Government.  Her daily routine of mopping floors and cleaning the facility offers her very little, if any, excitement in her humdrum life, but she does find solace in her closeted gay neighbor friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and her feisty and wisecracking co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer, in a purely Octavia Spencer-ian role).  Elisa's work life changes forever when the military brings in a very special "asset" that they plan on studying under closed doors, which turns out to be an "Amphibian Man" (thankfully the product of good ol' fashioned makeup, played by frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones).  Rather gruesomely, the creature is held in chains and frequently and mercilessly assaulted by one gonzo crazy agent named Strickland (a perfectly cast Michael Shannon), who takes sadistic relish in ensuring that this "asset" is constantly in pain while his research scientists, led by Hoffstedler (the in everything lately Michael Stuhbarg), study the beast to see what makes him tick...and keep their findings a well guarded secret from the Ruskies. 

Elisa is initially both fascinated by the Amphibian Man and traumatized by Strickland's malicious treatment of it.  Slowly but surely, she takes time to get the know the creature (she's assigned with cleaning the facility that it's essentially imprisoned in).  First, she brings the hungry creature hardboiled eggs, which it likes.  Then she makes attempts to communicate with it through sign language and the power of music (it likes Benny Goodman).  Soon, the beauty and beast become intimately bonded to the point where she can't stand the thought of it being held against its will in captivity and dealing with the hellish assaults of the fanatical Strickland.  Elisa decides - with the help of her friends - to spring the Amphibian Man and set it free, but not without ample logistical problems along the way. 

THE SHAPE OF WATER, as already alluded to, is on superbly powerful ground on a level of art direction and production design.  Setting the film in 1960s Maryland allows for del Toro and production designer Paul D. Austerberry to let their collective imaginations run wild with color schemes, pallets and era specific set decor and costumes (more often than not, THE SHAPE OF WATER has the bright hues of a MAD MEN with a macabre eeriness thrown in for good measure).  It should also be noted that Elisa lives directly above a cinema, which serves as a bit of sly meta commentary on the film's story of a woman being swept up into a world of the fantastical.  Cinematographer Dan Lausten gives the film both an inviting quaintness and a sense of dread and unease.  In particular, the makeup design of the creature itself is magnificently textured and tactile, absconded well away from obtrusive CGI garishness.  Considering how many big screen fantasies are awash with VFX artificiality, the tactile look and feel of THE SHAPE OF WATER is most refreshing. 

The performances on display here are also collectively a far cry better than what we typically get in this type of genre fare.  Sally Hawkins is given the tricky performance challenge of conveying a wide emotional range via body posture and facial language in her mostly mute character, and she captures Elisa's wide eyed sense of wonder of the creature with authentically rendered strokes.  Michael Shannon is absolutely in his wheelhouse playing yet another sinister loose cannon that has an unpredictable level of menace and hostility that can spill over without hesitation and warning.  It would be easy to say that Shannon is pathetically typecast playing the same types of scary psychopaths, but he's so damn good and chillingly convincing at it that it almost defies criticisms and labels.   I also liked Richard Jenkins, one of our most under appreciated actors, in his role of Elisa's homosexual neighbor and starving artist that brings an emotional urgency to just about any scene he populates.  Lesser actors would have played him as an annoying gay comic relief device, but Jenkins makes him feel vulnerable and relatable in his own unique way. 

Of course, then there's the core relationship between Elisa and the creature, which occupies some of the film's more potent sections as both bring their emotional guards down to a point when they can mutually accept each other's agreeable company.  I think where del Toro kind of drops the ball in this key component of THE SHAPE OF WATER is that he shows us the creature way too early, which eliminates a much more sizable and potent visual payoff later on.  That, and lapses in storytelling logic begins rearing its ugly head early on, like the fact that the Amphibian Man is one of the most tightly secured finds of the American government and one that Strickland and company take great pains to keep a secret from anyone on the outside world...but they somehow allow a lowly cleaning lady in Elisa frequent opportunities to see the beast and bond with it, which says very little to their security measures.  Now, we obviously wouldn't have a movie if Elisa and the Amphibian Man couldn't see each other and bond, but the manner they are so easily allowed to do so strains credulity. 

And what of their relationship itself?  The trailer campaigns for this film advertise it as a story of poignant friendship between two lost souls, which is sort of true, but then THE SHAPE OF WATER takes some strange detours and shows Elisa and the Amphibian Man embarking on sexual relationship, which, I'm sure, will turn some heads and turn some viewers off.  Del Toro never fully explains why, for instance, Elisa would be sexually attracted to a monster (other than to throw in a few brief, but somewhat sensationalistic moments of her masturbating as part of her morning routine to emphasize her sad isolation from others).  Clearly, marketing THE SHAPE OF WATER as a tale of interspecies romance and erotica would have been mightily awkward, but there's simply no denying that this odd tale of two lovers comes off as more creepy than moving and tender throughout, not to mention that, at its core, the notion of a woman and monster having intercourse is too ludicrously cringe worthy to ignore. 

Still, I do applaud del Toro's willingness to swing for the fences here and not pigeonhole his film into neat and tidy descriptors.  He shows guts with the material.  Unfortunately, he can't seem to make this extremely bizarre fantasy with many working parts gel cohesively together.  THE SHAPE OF WATER casually tosses in too many subplots that are vying for attention away from its central plot thread, like one character working clandestinely with the Russians that paves off predictably, not to mention that scenes highlighting Giles' dealing with the rampant homophobia of the time and his growing love for a local hunky diner worker feel like they belong in a whole other movie altogether.  The violence on display throughout the film is also shockingly graphic at times to endure and sometimes contradicts the whimsical vibe in other scenes; multiple moments showing Strickland's disgusting manner of dealing with a nasty wound he received at the hands of the creature is stomach churning.  Then there's frankly nonsensical inclusions, like a Busby Berkeley music dream sequence featuring Elisa and the Amphibian Man that had me scratching my head. 

I get it.  Del Toro is obsessively in love with the movies of old, and in some ways, THE SHAPE OF WATER is a love ballad to many classic genres of yesteryear.  Alas, that's also while it feels like a kitchen sink affair throughout, mostly because he's trying to homogenize so many discordant elements by hurling them into the air and somehow hoping that they'll stick and lead to a successful landing.  THE SHAPE OF WATER is a gorgeous fantasy through and through, but I didn't particularly find it dramatically moving despite some thoroughly committed performances by the cast.  With its jumpy and cluttered episodic nature, a weak third act when compared to a solid first, and main story of an unlikely love and friendship that's paradoxically sweet and grotesque in equal dosages, I found that THE SHAPE OF WATER pushed me away when it desperately wanted to drawn me in.   

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