- Product Rating -

The Shape of Water

| December 9, 2017

I’m not a person with that much of an affinity for the endearingly shoddy B-pictures of the Cold War era, but I completely understand the appeal—it just happens to be a genre that I haven’t endowed much time to. Color me a bit surprised to see that The Shape of Water, being an awards frontrunner and garnering a plethora of nominations already, is in fact a tribute to that exact batch of films. Here, Guillermo del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor forge a movie that’s highly endeared to the works of yesteryear, injecting a bit of revisionism and a lot of love into a anti-period piece. It’s one full of strong production design and performances that make for a pleasant two hours, but it’s also admittedly something without a whole lot on its mind aside from nostalgia.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor at a government facility in the midst of the Cold War who works alongside Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and lives next to the closeted, heart-of-gold-bearing Giles (Richard Jenkins). One day while at work, Elisa comes across an amphibious man (Doug Jones) living in a tube and being use as a giant green guinea pig for testing at the hands of Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and General Hoyt (Nick Searcy). Between her physical shortcoming and his fantastical nature, Elisa and Amphibious Man forge a relationship without words while the former teams up with her friends to save the latter. It is, at its core, a romance, but it’s also a story of a group of outsiders: a beast; a closeted man; a woman of color; and a woman who literally lacks a voice. It’s kind, pleasant, and pretty, its execution largely redeeming the script of its messiness and underlying sense of shallowness.

The Shape of Water is, like most of del Toro’s work, reliant on the wonders of its production design, carried out here by Paul D. Austerberry (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), which brings a damp warmth into industrial settings and rainy streets of the Baltimore area in which the film takes place. Lavished in a weathered way, it’s complimented by Dan Laustsen’s (Crimson Peak, John Wick: Chapter Two) cinematography. He and del Toro shoot the film in a nearly omnipresent teal tint that elicits the sense of calmness associated with watching marine life swim by at the aquarium while on a school field trip. Camera movements are—ahem—fluid and swaying without drawing attention to themselves, a hard line to walk, a the movie’s spurts of violence play against the color palette in a way that are jarring yet within the aesthetic realm of the film, which is also tied together well by the sound work.

As is likely evident, technical expertise is where The Shape of Water shines the most. Nevertheless, the work of Hawkins helps ground the movie with a tender humanity, which is in turn played well with Jenkins and Spencer, the former who gets some of his most charming moments in memory. Spencer adds more depth to the type of character she’s been relegated to playing for a long while, distracting from the film’s unwillingness for the most part to dive deeper into the prejudice that she experiences. It’s Shannon, though, who is given the least to do, instead bringing to life the same guy he’s been typecast as for virtually his entire career.

The entire movie feels a bit held back in a similar regard: it’s a story that could have had a lot more substance than it ultimately does. Del Toro and Taylor’s influences are clear from the start, and some decisions regarding structure and scope are quite fascinating. Looking at Cold War-era America is so often something narrowed down to suburban life, but The Shape of Water visits those on the outskirts of society. The first half is really quite enchanting as it illustrates our protagonist’s life, her personality, her job, her neighbors. The admiration for something so alien and so exiled from center-stage society is something timeless but portrayed here with a great attention to time and place, its subtext reflecting both the art and the culture of the time. That’s where The Shape of Water stops, though. It’s something that hinges more on the comfort supplied by its visuals instead of the people being followed. Peripheral characters are visited quite evenly, but the main antagonist feels like something of an afterthought, and a rather weak one at that. Shifts in tone and the focus of the plot can feel messy in the latter third, and it’s quite distancing at times.

Walking out of the theater, I was immediately struck by the truth that The Shape of Water reminds me a fair amount of La La Land. Both are movies that are in love with nostalgia, are a bit revisionist, and are homages to bygone genres. Both are also movies that I think are pretty good at the most, benefitting from their performances, some interesting ideas, and not a ton of exploration regarding what they could have been overall. I don’t see myself remembering a great amount of The Shape of Water, nor do I imagine myself seeing it again. It’s a modest success in the place of what could have been a thing of wonder, a movie hard to dislike to not that tempting to love, a project that has palpable passion spread out a bit unevenly, but one that still makes for a good time.

About the Author:

Senior year film student at Columbia College Chicago, Hollywood Film Festival pre-screener, and Best Social Media Presence for North Farmington High School's 2014 senior mock elections. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff".
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