THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)
Latest from Guillermo del Toro is a dark fairly tale that takes place at a research facility in Baltimore, Maryland in 1962. There we meet lonely, mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who works as part of the janitorial crew. A strange creature is brought in one day, an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones) with healing powers, captured in South America. Feeling a kindred spirit with “the Asset”, Elisa begins to communicate and bond with him. A cruel security chief (Michael Shannon) has plans to dissect the creature, which Elisa is falling in love with. Now Elisa must figure out a way to break The Asset out with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and a sympathetic scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg ) with a secret.
Unconventional romance is directed by del Toro from his own story and a script he co-wrote with Vanessa Taylor. Unfortunately there is something missing from this aquatic Beauty and the Beast, that keeps it from really resonating. The film has some great performances, and as with all del Toro’s works, it is sumptuously designed, but never really creates a sense of wonder with Elisa and Asset’s romance. Maybe it’s because the film can be a bit crude sometimes and shares a bit too much. We know Elisa’s lonely, did we need to know her masturbation routine? We know Shannon’s Strickland is a creep, but did we need to see his caveman-like sexual activities with his wife? And maybe it was better left ambiguous about Elisa and Asset’s romance becoming sexual instead of seeing it and getting sign language descriptions of Asset’s sex organ. It kind of takes away from the wonder that we become privy to such graphic detail. That and The Asset still comes across very much an animal and Elisa’s sexual relationship with it is unsettling even if Asset can communicate and enjoys music. It’s a bit uncomfortable and not as charming as intended. Del Toro also tries to tackle some social issues like racism and anti-gay sentiment, but it seems a little forced at times, such as one scene where both issues come to bare within minutes of each other as Elisa’s gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) encounters a racist, anti-gay waiter at a pie shop. It’s a bit heavy handed, despite being relevant themes. Still, there are some very effective scenes, some nice moments of whimsy and even a fantasy musical number, but too much information and a lack of subtlety on certain elements keep this from reaching the heights of his Pan’s Labyrinth, which masterfully combined dark fantasy, with more serious subjects. It’s not being R-rated that hinders the tone, just some things begged for a more subtle touch...something del Toro usually knows when to be.
The director does get some great performances here. Sally Hawkins is wonderful as the mute and slightly odd woman. She creates a sad yet endearing character. Doug Jones is also very good under a lot of prosthetic make-up as the silent and sometimes fearsome “Asset”. While he certainly gives him some human qualities and a lot of personality, the gill-man is still very much an animal which makes it hard to accept that his relationship with Elisa becomes sexual. It’s not enchanting, it’s uncomfortable. Richard Jenkins is very likable and has some of the more humorous lines as Elisa’s gay, artist neighbor Giles. The actor creates a very eccentric and likable character. Octavia Spencer is really good as Elisa’s only friend at the facility, Zelda. The actress makes her a lively and feisty woman, with some nice strength and compassion. We also get nice work from Michael Stuhlbarg as sympathetic Dr. Hoffstetler, who has some secrets of his own and Shannon is again top notch as the cruel and twisted Strickland. While the character is cliché, Shannon’s characterization is not. This is a very strange and disturbing individual. A great cast.
Overall, Guillermo del Toro’s newest tale is sadly a mixed bag. It has some great performances, giving life to some interesting characters. The visuals are beautiful and there are some very effective moments despite the whole “Beauty and the Beast” story being quite oft told. What keeps this flick from giving it’s dark fairy tale a sense of needed awe and wonder is being a bit too crude at times and sharing a bit too much, when subtlety would have been more effective. Sometimes less is more. Most of all, despite being imbued with human elements, Doug Jones’ fish-man is still too much an animal to make his sexual relationship with Elisa from being anything more than unsettling. As Serge in Beverly Hills Cop would say… “It’s not sexy. It’s animal.” A bold and audacious take on a time honored tale, but one that isn’t always effective in the way it wants to be.
Rated 3 eggs, a fish-man’s favorite treat.
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