Some colors inspire intense emotional responses simply by the act of being. When they’re combined with similarly bold colors, the reaction can be that much more extreme. But often, when those colors are mixed together as opposed to existing side by side, the result is often a muddy brown. While that brown might be perfectly serviceable in its own right, it loses the vivid qualities of the colors that made it. So it goes with Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, an unwieldy mix of Amelie, Hidden Figures, and Revenge of the Creature that’s never as effective or interesting as that may sound.
WARNING! MAY INCLUDE MILD SPOILERS!
Our protagonist is a mute cleaning woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who works at an aerospace research center alongside her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa’s best friend outside work is her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay artist. One day, the center receives a new top secret military project overseen by the glowering Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), which turns out to be an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones) that was taken from the Amazon Jungle. Elisa feels a sense of kinship with the Creature, and as feelings develop between the two, she resolves to rescue him from the facility and the sadistic Strickland.
Credit has to go to del Toro for the unparalleled level of proficiency displayed. From a technical standpoint, there’s very little wrong with the film. Del Toro’s masterful sense of framing and movement lends a quiet, confident grace to the visuals, and his attention to detail is admirable. There are a number of set designs in the center Elisa works at that feel like a 60’s Americana version of H. R. Giger’s otherworldly architecture or the titular spaceship in Event Horizon.
However, del Toro’s film always looks like it’s a Movie with a Capital M. The film’s setting is a picture-perfect, idealized version of nostalgia that’s only ever found in cinema, occasionally broken up by del Toro’s love of well-timed viscera. It’s a kind of imitation of life, an airbrushed plasticity that may look amazing but lacks true and organic depth. Likewise, Alexandre Desplat’s charming but unchallenging score helps establish a sense of wonder in the film’s opening scene but then quickly starts fading into itself and becoming generically cinematic.
Even the design of the Creature itself suffers from this, being mechanically perfect but never looking like more than Doug Jones in an admittedly amazing costume. Jones does a great job as the Creature, but at this point in his career, that’s a given. Much like how Andy Serkis is virtually guaranteed to always give a phenomenal motion capture performance, Jones’ physicality, grace, and presence are on full display just as it always has been in del Toro’s previous films.
In general, there’s little to complain about it when it comes to the cast. There’s a distinct level of quality that none of the performances go below, regardless of whatever awkward or inorganic lines they have to say (more on that in a moment). Sally Hawkins, like Jones, gives a predictably impressive performance, made all the more so by the fact that she spends the vast majority of the film silent. Whereas Jones’ performance is a full-body thing, measured in his actual movements and choreography, Hawkins relies almost entirely on her facial expressions to convey Elisa’s loneliness and subsequent emotional awakening. Elisa is the only character with a definite and dynamic story arc, so it’s just as well that she’s in the hands of an actress as capable and flexible as Hawkins.
Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins both do well, especially given the rather limiting confines of their roles. Jenkins, in particular, manages to wring incredible amounts of genuine emotion and sympathy for Giles, even though the character seems like a quintessentially 1960s gay secondary only mildly informed by modern consciousness. It’s like a subdued, middle-aged bear version of Tony Randall in every Rock Hudson/Doris Day film. Spencer’s character, on the other hand, is something that seems tailor-made for her, sassy and steely and vibrant. Much like how it’s always a welcome sight to see Michelle Rodriguez playing the Michelle Rodriguez character, Spencer’s carved out a very enjoyable niche for herself.
The only weak link in the cast, unfortunately, is Michael Shannon’s Strickland. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with Shannon’s performance, it’s Strickland as a character that trips up the narrative. Strickland is consistently and reliably (if cartoonishly) vile, but it’s antagonism in a vacuum. Is he racist? Of course. Is he a religious zealot who sees the Creature as an abomination? Sure. Is he a misogynistic pig? You bet. The only “-ism” not displayed by Strickland is homophobia, and that’s left for an otherwise adorable (and also racist) waiter that Giles is crushing on. But Strickland’s awfulness is never presented in context or with explanation, robbing Shannon’s otherwise fine performance of any real dramatic heft.
Shannon is often able to transcend the flat and predictable script that del Toro wrote alongside Vanessa Taylor (whose last film credit was the equally predictable and generic YA dystopia of Divergent). The film begins with florid narration that gives away virtually the entire story in its few dispassionate lines. Similarly, nothing in the narrative comes as a surprise or as a shocking twist save for an entirely gratuitous, tonally discordant, graphic act of violence against a domestic animal. In fact, del Toro’s biggest surprise is that the rescue of the Creature happens not during the act 3 climax, but before the film’s half-way point.
It’s clear that del Toro is trying to craft a kind of fairy tale, like a low-fi, urban fantasy version of his masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth. But what worked for that film doesn’t always work for this one, since it can’t commit to a singular tone or vibe. A black-and-white musical number set to Alice Faye’s signature ballad “You Never Know” feels intrusive instead of endearing because of the sheer randomness of its placement and energy, and it’s not the only incongruous set piece. It often feels like the film can’t decide if it wants to be whimsical, dramatic, or something between the two, leading to a sense of disjointedness and discord that sinks an otherwise admirable story of a group of outsiders — a disabled woman, a gay man, a black woman, and the Creature — finding happiness despite society doing everything it can to be prevent them from achieving it.
It’s difficult to call out what’s wrong with The Shape of Water as a film, mainly because there’s clearly a large amount of talent both behind and in front of the camera. It almost feels mean-spirited to do so, since del Toro clearly has the best of intentions and is obviously passionate about the film itself. But dedication and raw talent can only go so far, and too often, the film is weighed down by its own sense of metaphoric wonder instead of being buoyed by it. It’s a perplexing state of affairs and one that shouldn’t exist given the elements the film is composed of. These waters might run strongly, but they’re far muddier than they should be.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / C+