Fasten your seatbelts—it’s going to be a bumpy review.
The Shape of Water is one of those films which has the potential to provoke some intelligent, impassioned cultural conversations. Early on it received aggressive promotion and an ecstatic hullabaloo of critical response, and many viewers have responded warmly to it. By this point it’s probably safe to say that the plot set-up is widely known. At a top secret research facility in the early 1960s a lonely janitor named Elisa, who has hearing but is mute (the wonderful Sally Hawkins), forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held in captivity. Bold action is called for when the creature’s survival is threatened by a callous military-industrial complex.
It’s also probably safe to say that a majority of viewers, buoyed by the hype and the film’s 13 Oscar nominations, have gone to see it predisposed to like it, perhaps even with a degree of yearning—for uplift, charm, some cinematic sense of marvel. To stunned surprise, what some viewers are finding is a jarring exercise, its first two-thirds contrived and laborious, its last dependent on emotional manipulation (flocked with some torture and gratuitous violence)—a self-absorbed directorial display with little genuine engagement and even less enchantment.
Writer-director Guillermo del Toro has already proven that he has a flare for the visual palette (Pan’s Labyrinth), but the sophomoric sense of narrative here—scenes held too long, awkward staging, redundancy—begin to feel like an atonal, very belabored exercise in throwing everything at the demographics wall and presuming some of it will stick. In a way that’s difficult to believe but for the fact that it’s happening right in front of you, the storytelling alternates between incoherence and plodding tedium. The problem is felt throughout, but nowhere more egregiously than in the handling of Strickland (played as well as any actor possibly could by Michael Shannon) who serves as the villain of the piece, a cruel career military martinet whose psychotic machinations are set in opposition to Elisa, the creature, and all things decent. He might as well appear in his scenes with a bubble over his head reading Evil! The character gets little actual development yet all of his scenes are shapeless, sagging, and painfully overlong. When in one scene he tortures the creature with his cattle prod, the very real empathy we have been accruing for the creature is, after what seems an eon, eclipsed by an excruciating revulsion at the camera’s leering, lingering sadism.
When time and again scenes drag on beyond any hope of an arc of appropriate dramatic tension—and the viewer’s response has time to move from “We get it” to “Okay, we got it” to “Please, we got it, may we just move on?”—someone who has the director’s ear should get him to examine and come to grips with what is clearly a problem of tone-deaf self-indulgence if there’s to be any hope of his growing beyond it.
The excellent, chameleon-like Hawkins, always droll Octavia Spencer (Elisa’s co-worker and friend, Zelda), Richard Jenkins at his most winning (as her apartment building neighbor, a hapless illustrator) and the Amazonian amphibian creature on whom the plot slowly turns, played appealingly by Doug Jones—though tightly constricted by del Toro’s prescriptive construct—invest the film with whatever moments of truth it claims, and they manage to help the film’s pace and emotion, if only briefly here and there, break free of the director’s forced march and take wing.
Some critics have waxed giddy over the film’s referential nods to certain film genres and styles and what they salute as resonant metaphor, but the references are largely graceless, arbitrarily appropriated, and sterile—they bring no added layers of interest to the narrative and only occasionally even serve the design. As for the use of metaphor, the viewer has only one choice: either reluctantly step back or be bludgeoned. The film works very hard at being a parable for man’s inhumanity to his fellowman, other creatures, and the natural environment, and it is also determined to give fabulist voice to our desire to overcome any and all odds to make connection. The problem is just that—it feels like work. Instead of being drawn into any real sense of innocence, or wonder, or lift, alert viewers are body-slammed with the metaphors in the first half-hour and from there on out have their noses rubbed in them. Similarly, most filmgoers are perfectly well disposed, even eager, to take a healthy dose of escapism now and then. Be it through the agency of light romantic comedies, delightfully silly ’40s musicals, sci-fi, or florid fantasy, the desire to be carried away is a time-honored and fondly respected urge. The escapism of The Shape of Water, however, feels a lot like cop-out, and any traces of the winsomeness essential to storybook catharsis is desperately thin on the ground.
It’s not so much that the film is a big, imaginative risk, that it insecurely cobbles together its scattershot ambitions to be a paean to the mythology of old movies, a fable of good vs. evil, and a beauty-beast love story: a glorious, magical mess would potentially have had more humanity, art, and charm than what unfolds as an over-controlled, two-dimensional, often completely airless cartoon that ham-handedly demands our affection instead of earning it.
This film is transporting many viewers and critics as a gossamer dream of a film, but in a pattern not unlike the shifting reputation of last year’s initially much-vaunted La La Land—and in further proof that the Oscars can, as is true of all awards, be highly fallible—many other viewers, who have come away from The Shape of Water feeling ridden hard and put away wet (and who to date may have been keeping their own counsel around the dinner table and in cocktail party conversations) have now begun to express their disappointment in finding it hollow, dispiriting, and crudely made.
To dissent from a groundswell view is in no way to begrudge a film’s reception by others. One is moved to go out on a limb with a saw not to counter anyone’s personal response but to offer a countervalence to what seems a disproportionately monolithic critical response. Few, if any, true film lovers ever enjoy not liking a film—especially when it’s a generally well-received one and by opining otherwise one risks sounding merely contrarian or, worse, being thrown off the island of shared humanity.
The idea of the film—to meta-frame iconic film characters and genre characteristics within a conceit refashioned for some urgent contemporary themes—had potential brilliance. It’s del Toro’s overarching vision and his execution of the idea that fail some viewers. At lunch recently one friend put it neatly: “He has a great pictorial sense. I just want him to put the pictures together more effectively—I want him to become a better storyteller.” And the reviewer you now are reading, a child of the ‘50s and, at 68, being 14 years up on the 54-year-old director’s evident and oft-proclaimed love of old movies, believes he has earned sufficient street cred for his views to end them by borrowing the rhetorical structure of Lloyd Bentsen’s famously masterful comment to Dan Quayle in the televised 1988 vice-presidential debate, and say: “I knew The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Creature from the Black Lagoon was a friend of mine…”
So, here we are, movie-buff friends. The most heralded movie of the year, much appreciated by many, meets a growing chorus of questions and disconcerted disappointment from the rest of its audience. Who knows? It may be that The Shape of Water’s single most significant contribution to our cultural conversation may be how it prompts us to conduct those conversations. The film is after all, most essentially, an ode to communication, an exhortation to connect. Our discussions of this film may be as good a place as any to begin renewing our commitment to avoid yet another target of the film’s cautionary tale-telling—our era’s dangerous flirtation with tribalism, with drawing superficial distinctions rather than looking into our common humanity, with extremist argument, the ad hominem attack. Perhaps we can agree to avoid those self-inoculations to critical thinking and invigorating debate of “Well, I loved it!” or “I hated it!”, avoid cutting off debate with the querulous “How can you say that?”, avoid the actual impugning of morality that’s so often the subtext to the smug “Well, we must have seen different movies!” Perhaps those enraptured by this film can voice what they feel it artfully articulates, and those who wanted it to be more or different can share what they think those values are they had hoped it would achieve.
As far as good conversation and an enriching exchange of understanding goes, it may be the last scene of the film around which all viewers can unite, if for very different reasons, to discuss their range of responses. For some it may be the capstone of an experience, for others it may be too little arriving far too late—but in that last image the screen swells with a sense of inevitability, of necessity, and blooms with eloquence and longed-for liberation.
– Hadley Hury