THE SHAPE OF WATER
A sweet and atypical melodrama, standing astride a very thrilling thriller, that still doesn't mix all its elements as well as it clearly must think it does.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Vanessa Taylor and Guillermo del Toro
With Sally Hawkins (Elisa Esposito), Octavia Spencer (Zelda Fuller), Richard Jenkins (Giles), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr. Robert Hoffstetler), Doug Jones (the Amphibian Man), and Michael Shannon (Col. Richard Strickland)
Spoiler alert: moderate
Whatever else is wrong with The Shape of Water, at least it's weird. Content-wise, it's maybe the weirdest movie to ever be released during awards season in the hopes of scoring the Oscar nom that it's self-evidently not going to get. (ETA 1/23/2018: well, huh.) It's a movie with a terrific hook, if you're into the whole concept of "stuff you've never seen before," and that hook, put as directly and crassly as possible, is "Sally Hawkins getting naked, and fucking a fish." This does indeed happen in the movie—more than once, even, and more-or-less artfully (it is not straight-up ichthyophile pornography, which is either a merit or demerit, depending on your point of view)—but, wondrously enough, the fish-fucking probably isn't even the weirdest thing about it.
The other side of Water's coin, however, is contained in my little qualifier there, "content-wise," and as much as you'd be hard-pressed to describe the movie where Sally Hawkins fucks a fish as normal, there's a normalcy to this tale nevertheless, both in the way it pursues its particular program (that is, with hectoring obviousness), and in the way it feels indecisive at its most important moment, like it can't quite commit to doing what it wants, without holding your hand too tightly while it does it.
Well, I've kind of already summarized its plot, I suppose, but it doesn't hurt to be a little more detailed than the subject-verb-object simplicity of my preferred logline. So: in the earliest stretch of the 60s, there exists in Baltimore a government-funded research station where white men with bad haircuts make decisions about America's future. There have been, we suspect, many less-than-savory things done in the name of national security here, and left to clean up the messes they cause—the literal, physical ones, anyway—are the help, a staff of women on the lower rungs of society, especially Elisa, a mute woman who, we gather, has resigned herself to her dull routine. But everything changes when the station becomes the home of one particular "asset," captured in the Amazon and hauled up to Maryland, and no happier upon his arrival than upon embarkation: a strange fish, with gills and lungs, and who walks (and does other things) like a man.
In charge of this humanoid from the deep, and all the possibilities he represents (outer space this, Soviet Union that, and all of it vague and stupid in the finest tradition of mid-century sci-fi), is the U.S. Army's Col. Strickland, a self-evident monster with a propensity for pissing without shame and swatting his captive with a cattle prod. However, in the course of her duties, Elisa makes a connection with the uncanny prisoner—her first real meeting coming just moments after he's savagely bitten off a couple of Strickland's fingers—and Elisa realizes, in turn, that he has been bitterly mistreated; that he is intelligent, and capable of communication; and that she's falling in love. With the gill-man's vivisection scheduled in just a few days, she doesn't have a lot of time to release him from Strickland's man-made hell. To do it, she'll need the help of her friends, fellow janitor Zelda and next-door neighbor Giles, and maybe a little more besides.
Well, it's a fairy tale, anyway, which is hardly unexpected from director Guillermo del Toro (co-writing, too, alongside Vanessa Taylor); though Water gives its fairy tale a jolt of energy with its prison-break/spy-movie plot mechanics (and not in a bad way, at that). What is perhaps a little unexpected, and not entirely desirable in the execution, is the way that del Toro turns his scenario inexorably toward an all-surface examination of the actual crappiness of mid-century America. Socio-historical commentary isn't exactly out of his ambit, of course; but he's heretofore kept it confined mainly to Spain, and then mainly to "the Falange was bad." Still, if I'm being completely honest, I don't know if it worked any better in Pan's Labyrinth.
Water makes a full-spectrum attack, through the menagerie of oppressed peoples it gathers to drive its heroism: a woman; a black woman (suffering in a bitter marriage with a black man, no less, the "man" part being more important in this instance); and a gay artist, nursing an utterly hopeless crush on a man thirty years his junior (well, it's sweet in practice). It throws a Russian into its mix, too, though this mainly suggests that the movie was written some time ago. The movie makes its point most clearly, however, through the racist, sexist, might-as-well-call-him-fascist villain of its piece, and, in fairness, Strickland does benefit greatly from being played by a big white man (Michael Shannon) who can convincingly bellow with largely-unmotivated rage and bulge his eyes most threateningly.
And since neither come close to hiding the fact that Strickland's terrible at his job, I guess that's intentional, too.
Really, it's only with Strickland that Water's schematic vision of America makes itself tedious. Well, it already falls down a little, I'm afraid, with Octavia Spencer's Zelda: I'm made to understand that Spencer is extremely good at this kind of Sassy Black Servant Stereotype, though I have to admit I've never actually seen her do it, probably because I must be a little racist myself, as are we all. She is indeed technically quite good at it here—and, boy, is it ever A Stereotype. Richard Jenkins' Giles, the poor dear, is better-shaded and therefore more engaging (though I'm still unsure how appropriate it is to draw pictures of your friends having sex, even if one is something as novel as a fish). But, as for Strickland, del Toro and Taylor are just inordinately interested in examining his evocation of mid-century masculinity, and I cannot say why, when they seem so completely disinterested in making him anything but the single-minded Gaston of their Beauty and the Beast scenario.
Hence thirty full minutes of this movie must revolve around Strickland, and Strickland's family, and Strickland's beautiful new teal Cadillac—the emphasis upon its tealness appearing to be absolutely nothing but this film's production design throughline showing up in dialogue (and, in the process, not even bothering to make strong symbolic sense with the sunflower-yellowness of Strickland's gorgeous house and his color-coordinated family)—and, in all recognition that everything Strickland represents is still very much part of America in the here and now, in Water's highly-contemporaneous specifics, it comes off more like repeatedly punching people who already died thirty or forty years ago, rather than telling us anything new about yesterday or today.
Semi-ham-fisted social consciousness winds up obscuring what Water's much, much better at, which we find in its more universal qualities. Or Universal qualities, if you will (though you probably shouldn't); and it's so obvious that I feel pained to point it out that Water is del Toro's mash-note to Jack Arnold's aquatic classic, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, with all the roles flipped on their heads. And this is a fine thing for a movie to be! Better yet, it's even more of a remake of Arnold's Revenge of the Creature, the despicably bad sequel to Black Lagoon, that dealt with the Universal Gill-man's captivity—gracious, Shannon even somewhat resembles a beefier, screechier John Agar—though it's a remake that has the good sense to recognize that that movie's scientist-captor was the bad guy.
Still, del Toro makes it clear enough he can't make much room for the most fascinating thing about Black Lagoon (the tense, hypnotic spectacle of real underwater stunts captured by artful underwater photography), and the blunt progressivism of Water's screenplay could, if we squinted, look a tiny little bit like an overcompensation for del Toro's initial inspiration for Water, which was his conviction as a young lad that Black Lagoon would've been better if the gill-man had successfully raped Julie Adams.
I think we can agree that this is a little gross, but sympathy-for-the-devil is the strange appeal of most Universal Horror movies.
It's not so gross in Water, or, rather, it's beautiful in its grossness; as a result, I can't even begin to claim the movie isn't a huge success on its own terms. It ties its variegated heroes together by their loneliness, and it's their loneliness, and their sense of the unfairness of the world, that sends them into hell's heart to do the right thing. It binds its lovers together even more meticulously, beginning with their shared muteness, obviously enough, and extending to the littlest, subtlest visual markers, like the way she happens to masturbate, in the bath.
Clearly, none of this works at all without Sally Hawkins: besides the fundamental challenges of playing mute and credibly fucking a fish, Hawkins' open-hearted warmth, bright-eyed, almost-childish whimsy, and flinty sparks of sub-verbal resistance are already doing more than enough work for two whole leads, even before Doug Jones' pretty good silent performance as Water's fish-man swings by, to offer its assistance. Yet even with a performance as good as Hawkins' selling it, there's no denying that every minute spent with Strickland—whom we might as well be watching buy car insurance for all that even his high-energy conjugal sex scene actually matters—is one more minute not spent developing Elisa's relationship. Inasmuch as these scenes are the best this film offers by a very large margin (with some minor but salient exceptions, mostly involving awesome violence, and even awesomer body horror), it's an unanswerable shame that Water isn't either better-focused, or just more concentrated in its potency, i.e., shorter.
In any event, the quality of those scenes thankfully distracts from the big thing this movie does wrong, which is failing to find its register. I said it was a "fairy tale," and I said it was "normal," and both these things are contradictory, and yet they're also both true. The film develops more momentum as it becomes a thriller in its second act (Water being, structurally, very much a two-act film), but even as it demands its plot mechanics start to be taken more seriously, its surrealist streak starts showing up in a great many ways, sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrible. The wonderful ones break from the film's reality entirely; the terrible ones, on the other hand, push themselves clumsily right into that reality. And so what you wind up with is a film that looks like sci-fi; evidently wants to be magical; kind of accidentally stumbles into thoughtless magical-realism; and ultimately concludes with total psychotic nonsense that, even so, works so elegantly as an image that you understand, completely, why del Toro went for it—even if you cannot for the life of you figure out why the man thought it was necessary to tie it to anything so dully, damnably literal. It's as if he thought he'd lose his audience if he didn't ground everything in the mud of narrative; I'd submit the opposite is the more likely case. (The Last Jedi, though otherwise dissimilar, has the same problem with its climactic imagery. Is this going to be a trend?)
The good certainly outweighs the bad! And the film is never, ever less than handsome and involving, thanks to del Toro's collaborators. Dan Lausten, returning from Crimson Peak (plausibly del Toro's best film), may not ever find anything so abidingly gorgeous here, but he does do wonders cohering this film's story and themes into visuals with his grotty, watery lighting schemes—Lausten gives production designer Paul Austerberry his best possible effort, and Austerberry's Gothic sci-fi is rendered quite splendid indeed within it. (Meanwhile, Lausten's showiest moments in Water are every bit the equal of Peak. Not coincidentally, they are also the best and strangest moments of this film.) Surely not least amongst del Toro's team, there's Alexandre Desplat, finding a stronger tone for the film than its director does; Desplat's dreamy score, driven chiefly by mournful harmonium music, insists you take del Toro's movie with at least one grain of salt.
At its strongest, then, The Shape of Water is bold and like nothing else you've ever seen. At its weakest, it's like tons of stuff you've seen. Its weak bits might be few, but they are arranged in such a way that they're what you're thinking about on your way out. The good news, however, is that the strongest parts are the ones that stay with you.