After 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro was beginning to garner a cult following among the film nerd community. We finally had one of our own, with the same love for the macabre and B movies, at the helm of some big studio projects who then found himself Oscar nominated. Hollywood was taking notice of him and guys like Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro González Iñárritu, but del Toro was the genre guy, the one who had no guilty conscience for loving what he loved. He was this overwhelming force of positivity and it was infectious. That was a decade ago, and the ensuing films in his repertoire haven’t been met with as much love.
As a vocal lover of melodrama, he crafts his stories in very larger than life ways in large part to help ground the fantastical elements he plays around with in the narratives of say, his Hellboy features. The problem is that a lot of the time lately, in features like Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, is an apparent interest in stringing together visuals or moments into narratives that have difficulty coalescing into a clear statement. His enthusiasm to cram as much information into every frame, and every moment began to deflate the larger whole of his work. I’ve walked out of his past three features with a feeling of enjoying them yet unable to shake a feeling of disposable entertainment because there were clear disconnects between the material, the creator, and the audience. He started making movies only for himself, ones that required him explaining why you should care.
The Shape of Water feels like it’s trying to swing back to the side of his creative practice that strives for balance. Oh it still has several moments that scream “it’s staying in the movie because I like it,” and make no mistake about it they will pull many viewers out of the film. So let’s get into what works in this difficult to define Fairytale Creature Feature Set During the Cold War. If that sounds like two different things, don’t worry we’ll get there.
Sally Hawkins plays a mute by the name of Elisa who spends her days in the same routine of waking from her daybed, boiling eggs for breakfast, bathing, and checking in on her next door neighbor and closeted gay best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) before heading off to her job cleaning up Frankenstein-esque labs at some type of government testing facility. The feature does a great job of establishing these parts early on. We get the general idea of their loneliness and the outsider identity they allow to define them, it’s a theme the film seems focused on exploring and so far it’s going well.
We get to meet Elisa’s other close friend Zelda, played by the always wonderful Octavia Spencer, as a way of filling Elisa’s world with a bit of auditory stimulation as we see her continue going about her nondescript day at the creepiest place on Earth. Then Michael Shannon shows up with some type of Merman he discovered in the Amazon, hoping that the eggheads in the lab coats can learn something valuable so the U.S. can use it against the Russians.
You’ve seen the trailer, and I certainly don’t want to spoil much else from here, but it’s at this point the film begins to swirl around different ideas on what journey it wants to take the audience. What begins as a stunningly lighthearted world resembling Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie soon begins to feel a whole lot more like the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense from the Hellboy movies. It’s not that any of the ideas it wants to explore aren’t at home, or suited for the set up — they work on their own, but the narrative itself begins to split off like tiny streams that occasionally intersect back into the larger river that is Elisa’s internal conflict with suddenly finding a purpose. Basically, The Shape of Water has a protagonist problem.
In fairness, when you cast Michael Shannon in your movie, his power as a performer is going to steal focus away and take center stage. The problem is that his character never reaches anything that approximates pure villainy. He’s introduced in a way that has the audience think the story is going to weave between fairytale and science fiction, his character is your typical B movie government official who takes no guff type. Only it’s Michael Shannon and instead of rolling your eyes you kinda lean in, anticipating what he can do with a role that this, where instead of playing it straight he can play around in the sand box Guillermo loves to create for his characters.
Toxic masculinity is a phrase that has grown in prominence over the course of 2017 after slowly bubbling during the 2016 presidential election. Predictably, Shannon becomes the true villain of the piece, with the monster being misunderstood like the others. This isn’t going to be a political review, but the more I think back to the feature I couldn’t understand why del Toro gives more and more screen time to Michael Shannon at the expense of developing Hawkins and Jones’ relationship as Elisa and the Creature.
He looks at Hawkins character as lesser. An object. Someone he sees as weak and wants to dominate, but it’s a twisted sexualization left mostly as surface material to make you root against him in a very cheap and easy way. Large parts of the story focus on the idea that Shannon’s Strickland character is becoming more and more of a creature as the 60’s culture takes over his life. Securing valuable cargo for the government, working on the 2.5 kids ideal with his Mrs. Cleaver-esque wife played by January Jones. The idea that men of status drive a Cadillac. The fear of failing to deliver, resulting in the complete null and voiding of any previous career achievements. Finding out that morals are only as good as the weapon they can serve as. It’s all there on paper, but watching it is jarring, it’s still playing towards fantasy in a world that feels like it’s becoming more and more “real.” I look back to Sergi López’s performance as Captain Vidal, how del Toro was capable of creating a true monster of humanity in such a fantastical world, and keep scratching my head as to why it just never materialized here.
In fact placing any sense of reason for both Elisa and the Creature’s relationship more and more on the back burner is the films biggest issue. Hawkins and Jones are magical on screen both apart and together as performers, it’s the whimsical glue that holds the whole things together. As the movie begins to cut away more and more from their story, I can’t help but wonder if the writers simply didn’t know what to do with them once they’re together. Leaving two of the most compelling performances without a whole lot to do, and that’s the scripts biggest sin. All of these wonderful pieces never coalesce into a clear vision of what the director is trying to say. They’re murky.
Nothing is more fun to watch than films that feel like you get to take a peek at the full realization of months if not years of notes and ideas in a director’s notebook. Guys like Jim Jarmusch, Rian Johnson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and especially Guillermo del Toro make their best works when every aspect is a labor of love that is given time to ruminate and expand in their minds. The Shape of Water feels like a love lever that’s been written and rewritten over countless years, the kind that starts to omit the finer details because they start to feel predictable. As the reader of this letter for the first time though, I wonder what the second or third go might have looked like. Would we have gotten more insight into Elisa’s sense of isolation, or more moments between her and the Creature to perhaps understand why she holds such a strong bond? For all of the work Hawkins does to hold up this film, with several spellbinding moments on screen, I can’t help but wonder if again del Toro slowly stopped writing a letter to his passion and instead began writing only to himself. Recommended.
Tags: Doug Jones, Guillermo Del Toro, Michael Shannon, movie reviews, Octavia Spencer, review, Richard Jenkins, Sally Hawkins, sci fi, The Shape of Water, Theatrical