It’s very easy to give The Shape of Water praise, which doesn’t take away from the fact that it deserves every award it’s garnered so far. It’s beautifully shot, and the practical monster effects are masterful, but Guillermo Del Toro’s latest feels safe and—despite the violent nature of it’s story—sanitized and clean.
I didn’t think I was going to like The Shape of Water since my adoration for the Spanish auteur’s work has waned since 2006s Pans Labyrinth. This is a film that certainly benefited from low expectations, and at the risk of sounding negative, the simplicity of it’s storytelling leaves room for well written characters to be brought to life through an all-star cast.
And if the film itself doesn’t deserve an oscar, it’s fair to say that Sally Hawkins in the lead actress category would be an excellent choice (for a wholly unoriginal gold statue). Richard Jenkins also commands what screen time he’s given and the subplot he’s involved with is poignant beyond the initial setup.
While the literal fish out of water love story treads familiar ground, the relationships feel genuine and believable once you get past the scaly elephant in the room. But the believability of the monster turned government experiment, belongs solely to the master of practical garb (relax Serkis) in Doug Jones. Outside of portraying numerous monsters in Del Toro’s previous films, you’ve also seen Jones in The Strain and Star Trek: Discovery. As a physical actor Jones is able to move between primal animal movement that paints him as dangerous and vulnerable, with emotion so often associated with body language and human intuition.
As with his previous work, The Shape of Water carries with it the unmistakable sense of childlike wonder that Del Toro is known for; sets are designed in exaggerated fashion but only slightly so, and the world is tilted off it’s normal axis’ just enough for this narrative to feel grounded. Bringing a grounded performance is of course Michael Shannon, whose so used to wearing “bubbling malevolence,” It’s tailored to fit. But of course, because it’s Shannon, nothing is what it seems and the veteran on a hot streak manages to make his big bad, emphatic and still disgusting.
It’s around the same time that we’re learning about Shannon’s agent Strickland that some of my issues crop up. And to be honest, the problems are also inherently Del Toro: A lot of the various themes come off heavy handed, a rotting finger a subtle reminder of greed’s corruption. And the aforementioned story is fairly predictable, which okay isn’t a giant deal. Most of Del Toro’s work is beautiful to look and poignant to watch, but the depth primed for exploration lays dormant and it’s the same here with Shape of Water. I wish Del Toro would push further with his work instead of teasing these amazing stories.
But none of those complaints really matter if I care about what’s on screen, and it’s here Del Toro is successful. I walked away from The Shape of Water blown away by what I’d seen. I felt comfortable because despite it’s familiarity the setup is executed well, and it’s story provides a framework I can get lost in. And once we’re firmly established where Del Toro wants us, he twists the frame of reference just enough so the plane shifts and suddenly we’re met with something unique, colourful and heavy.
There are plenty of ways to watch The Shape of Water by now, so you have no excuse.