Genre: Fantasy Running Time: 2 hrs. 3 min.
Release Date: December 8th, 2017 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Guillermo del Toro Actors: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, Lauren Lee Smith
reoccupied painter Giles (Richard Jenkins) recounts “ a tale of love and loss … and the monster that tried to destroy it all,” set long ago (during a time when a cup of coffee cost a mere 30 cents) in a city near the coast (which is actually just Baltimore, Maryland). With a whimsical tone and bouncy music (in the vein of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Delicatessen”), this narrator’s words transition into the world of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who lives above the Orpheum Theater, where movies like “The Story of Ruth” and “Mardi Gras” play. She’s alone but not despondent, managing to maintain a positive attitude while toiling as a maid at an aerospace center (along with chatty associate Zelda Fuller [Octavia Spencer]), and regularly checking in on Giles, her elderly neighbor.
Elisa’s apartment, the streets she traverses, the long corridors at her work, and the oily laboratories at its heart are all gloomy, dismal places, yet they’re imbued with a certain vividness, as if a neon luminescence lurks just below a layer of grime. It’s both bright and dusky, retaining a practically otherworldly look, which is highly appealing. It’s as if a black-and-white film was colorized with an exotic palette of shades far beyond the dull glow of Technicolor. This blending of visual themes for a setting unlike any real locale is writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s forte.
As for the plot, Elisa’s tiresome routines are about to change, as the facility receives the most sensitive asset ever to be housed there: a scaly humanoid creature submerged in a tank of pulpy water. This South American merman of sorts was worshipped like a god in its native land; but government man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) wants to poke and prod it, hoping to discover some fascinating reaction. Alternatively, Dr. Bob Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) hopes to study it for the sake of science. And Elisa quickly realizes that setting it free might be its only chance at survival.
Guillermo del Toro is clearly fond of classic films, as evidenced by various references, from Shirley Temple to Carmen Miranda to Alice Faye. But he’s also enthralled by adult themes and exploring intimate human behaviors, from the minutiae of preparing food to the privacy of masturbation to the stigmas of homosexuality and the tolerance of racism of the period. At the same time that he nods to old-fashioned pictures, he’s also populating his work with lowly, troubled souls, preternatural notions, and bloody gore. The use of outcasts bonding with fellow outcasts is a moving component, along with the misunderstood and mistreated discovering a common loneliness, desperation, and compassion, but there’s something rather incompatible with the introduction of a love story.
As del Toro strives to make “The Shape of Water” sweet yet horrifying, playful yet dark, he forgets that the love story must be genuine for any of the impressive but secondary visual elements (such as the makeup and prosthetics) to carry any weight. The mute girl is sympathetic because of her disability, while the merman is pitiable thanks to torture at the hands of Strickland; but their compatibility is rushed and unconvincing. Although the film grants enough screentime to their interactions, it leans toward a specific weirdness (like “Splash” meets “Splice”) that substitutes for believable closeness. It may be unique, but it’s not effective. By the end, the story falls into a pattern of contrived confrontations that culminates in an underwhelming union – one that has all the good intentions of a classic romance, but none of the sensibilities. The cast and crew of “The Shape of Water” are certainly capable craftspeople, but del Toro’s predilections for severed digits and graphic nudity don’t fit with the dreamy asides for golden age musicals and the childlike awe of the Universal Monsters.
– Mike Massie