You can always tell the parts of a film that directors feel personally attached to by what hits the viewer on an emotional level—and what doesn’t make sense on any level. With The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro transports us to a world where love between two outcasts—a woman and a misunderstood amphibious man-fish creature—can heal, not only their own suffering and alienation, but the social ills and intolerance around them. The director also delivers a bloated, irrelevant narrative with obvious twists and on-the-nose societal commentary that’ll bore you to hell and make you wonder why you bothered with this movie until the fish-love comes back.
The Shape of Water
R, 132 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Violet Crown Cinema
The former boasts exceptional performances, inspired direction and wholly unique set pieces. The latter, well, boasts the opposite. The Shape of Water is both, and your mileage with it will vary depending on how powerful you find the main plot and how distracting you find everything else.
The Shape of Water takes place in 1960s Baltimore against the backdrop of the Cold War. Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa Esposito, a janitor at a top-secret research facility where everyone shouts about how top secret everything is with the doors wide open, and the custodians have sufficient clearance to spend their lunch breaks among all the top-secret stuff.
Elisa is mute, speaking in signs with her two closest friends: Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted man who works as a commercial artist, and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). One day, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives with a top-secret specimen (again, while making not such a big secret), which turns out to be our man-fish (Doug Jones). Their experiments border on torture, which angers scientist Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg).
Elisa quickly bonds with the creature. It is kind to her and she to it. She teaches it occasional signs and brings extra hard boiled eggs for it during lunch. Gradually, their affection becomes unambiguously romantic; this ain’t Beauty and the Beast—the creature is not secretly a man and has no conflict about its appearance. That del Toro crafts such a fairy tale without sidestepping is to his credit; he does not avoid the sexual component of this relationship. The creature is not beastly, and though the initial stages of the romance are rushed (as is most of the plot), once it has been established, their love is completely believable, thanks to del Toro’s clear interest in how movie monsters reflect the truth of ourselves back at us.
All told, this portion of the movie takes up about one-third of the too-long runtime. The rest is filled with inspired but directionless sideplots (Giles’ flirtation with the waiter at a nearby diner), baffling Cold War commentary (the totally extraneous presence of Soviet spies, featuring the worst spoken Russian in a movie since The Boondock Saints), and insultingly thin supporting characters. Spencer and Shannon are both committed performers who have proven themselves time and time again—why are they constantly relegated to being the sassy friend or the authoritarian Bible thumper?
Everyone does their best with the script—Stuhlbarg and Jenkins in particular breathe life into their roles—but the star of the show is Hawkins, who shines at every single moment in a completely dialogue-free performance. Not a single glance or movement is wasted, and is performed without a trace of overacting, even in the elevated reality of the film’s universe.
It is clearly the film del Toro set out to make without an ounce of compromise, and for that it should be applauded. But whether or not you enjoy The Shape of Water will depend on how you balance the essential with the disposable.
Playing this week
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056
Ferdinand, The Greatest Showman,Pitch Perfect 3, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
All The Money In The World, Coco, Darkest Hour, Downsizing, Father Figures, Ferdinand, The Greatest Showman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Pitch Perfect 3, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
All The Money In The World, Darkest Hour, Downsizing, Father Figures, The Greatest Showman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Star Wars: The Last Jedi