Cinema: The Flawed Beauty of ‘The Shape of Water’
Guillermo del Toro has never shied away from his love of monsters. The charismatic writer/director has made a career out of it, in fact; celebrating those typically seen as grotesque in gothic triumphs like Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Crimson Peak. In each, the virtues of monster are calibrated with the vices of man, forcing the viewer to question what true evil really is. This ongoing obsession continues with his latest offering, The Shape of Water, which represents his most ambitious melding of monster and man to date. But in swinging the pendulum further than usual in the direction of the latter, del Toro, perhaps for the first time, sells his human characters a bit short.
The premise of Water is a glorious stew of classic B-movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon and the austere melodramas that director Douglas Sirk churned out back in the 1950s: a mute janitor named Eliza (Sally Hawkins) falls in love with “the asset”, a half-man/half-fish creature (Doug Jones) who’s been captured by the CIA and is scheduled for dissection at the hands of vicious agent Strickland (Michael Shannon). Eliza decides to rescue the creature, however, and her desperate attempts lead to a tragic series of events that unfold with del Toro’s characteristically romantic bent.
The story is initially posed as a race against time; cutting between Eliza and her friends Zelda (a chatty Octavia Spencer) and Giles (a lovable Richard Jenkins) as they plot their rescue mission, and Strickland as he attempts to obliterate the creature against the wishes of Dr. Hoffstetler (a soulful Michael Stuhlbarg). There could’ve easily been cliched fodder with regards to the characters, but del Toro circumvents these cliches in clever fashion; taking the archetypal damsel in distress and making her the lead, while Strickland, the stodgy patriot who, if the film were made back in the day would be the hero, is pushed into the role of ruthless villain. These manipulated gender roles are crystalized by the stellar performances of Hawkins, who brings a sly, subtly erotic flair to the silent Eliza, and Shannon, who chews the scenery with more nastiness and aggression than he does the hard candies his agent brandishes throughout. Del Toro reportedly wrote the characters with these two actors in mind, and neither disappoint.
Long time admirers of the director will also find plenty to love stylistically; from the vibrant color palette and religious iconography to the infatuation with classical cinema (Eliza lives above an old movie theater). He remains a virtuoso when it comes to strictly visual storytelling, especially in romantic scenes between Eliza and the creature. Much of the film’s press has come from the fact that there is a very visceral, erotic component to the story between them, and while nothing graphic is shown, del Toro fully embraces the notion of interspecies sexuality-- a point of contention that may put some people off. (One elderly gentleman at my screening articulated his discomfort by saying aloud “well, that was... weird.”) I admire what del Toro was going for here, in what is easily his most garish embrace of monsters, but there are moments where it feels perhaps too overstated. This is a content call that every viewer will have to make for themselves.
To further hinder matters, the second half of the film betrays much of the subversive narrative that was previously established, and goes exactly where you think it will. Del Toro appears so invested in the Cold War setting and the colorful eccentricities of his characters (few directors love their characters more) that he, quite uncharacteristically, forgets to give them a resolution worthy of their inner-richness. The finale has a few visceral, violent showcases, proving del Toro hasn’t lost a step when it comes to depicting creative violence, but there are no twists or turns we don’t see coming, and the character's actions feel telegraphed rather than organic. Vulture critic David Edelstein hit the nail on the head when he described the resolution as “utterly lovely but complacent.”
Much like its mute protagonist, The Shape of Water is ultimately flawed and beautiful in equal measure. It's obvious that the director is deeply invested in his bizarre fable, and I would be remiss to say I wasn’t swept up by the film's rapturous colors and melodramatic flourishes while I was watching. It seduces by design. That del Toro's blind infatuation strands it just short of a masterpiece is an unfortunate, if endearingly forgivable, misstep.