“The Shape of Water”
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
For some reason I was reticent to see del Toro’s newest creature-based parable. Not sure if it was because I didn’t think it would live up to the hype currently surrounding it. Or perhaps it stemmed from my concern that del Toro might never achieve the heights of “Pan’s Labyrinth” ever again. His other films are always gorgeous to look at, but they definitely suffer in both plot and in the kind of tension brought about by the human condition (two areas in which “Pan’s” wildly succeeds, and the “Hellboy” films and “Crimson Peak” utterly fail).
But see it I did, on the big screen, thank god, because it is every bit as visually imaginative as you would…well…imagine. Set in a nebulous early Cold-war era, del Toro and cinematographer Dan Laustsen have created a fifties Americana that’s had its bright pastels washed away, and given us a steady diet of foreboding blues, blacks and greens. And, yet, he still manages to evoke those eye-popping colors in our mind’s eye, which is essential, because without that accomplishment, the film would fall flat. The other visual del Toro-ism comes from the stunningly conceived and utilized creature, the central figure by which the rest revolve. Grotesque and beautiful, the film comes alive whenever it appears on screen.
Alas, with the exception of Sally Hawkins’ Elisa, none of the other players come across as adequately human enough to evoke emotion from the audience. They merely act as stereotypes: The Fascist, The Downtrodden, The Human With A Heart of Gold, The Funny Friend. Just a TOUCH more subtlety in the film’s direction and I may not have been so bored by these people. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the film is NOT boring. It’s a fine plot, basic but interesting and certainly of its time (and ours). But I knew what these characters were going to do at any given time. And as fantastic, unreadable and human as Elisa and the Creature are, it’s just not enough.
Not that it’s the actors fault. Hawkins really is brilliant. Like Samantha Morton’s star turn in “Sweet and Lowdown” twenty years earlier, Hawkins, as a mute woman, is able to fill her face with every emotion…never telling us what to think, but bringing us in to her psyche so WE feel her emotional responses. It is award-worthy work. But after that, the rest of the actors are stuck playing charicature. Believable, but rather dull. Stuhlbarg has some great moments, but they are fleeting. Michael Shannon is blistering and seething, but exhausting since there seems to be no space for him to simply be. Michael Jenkins fairs better than most. But his character should be the most compassionate. Instead he becomes utterly two-dimensional during the actual caper of the film. Finally, Octavia Spencer could play this role in her sleep…which is what it feels like she’s doing. She’s played this exact same role several times now, and, in spite of another Golden Globe nomination, her management team is not doing her any favors. Special mention to Doug Jones, whose character work as the creature, is exceptional, emotional and hypnotic.
Finally, we have a winner folks. Alexandre Desplat’s score, while occasionally verging in to Wes Anderson-ville, is simply gorgeous and spot on. His compositions, along with a selection of forties-era popular music – which evokes “Pennies From Heaven” (the television production, not the Steve martin vehicle) – is simple, lush, appropriate and never-overbearing. Expect to hear his name at a big bunch of the award fetes.
So, when all is said and done, it’s worth seeing. What bothers me may not stand in your way as it did mine…or more accurately, you may be so enamored with the look of the film, and the beauty of the relationship, that you’ll forgive it’s shortcomings. I was mostly able to, but looking back, what stuck with me were those failings, not its successes.
Written on 1/4/2018