The Shape of Water

Sally Hawkins in the film The Shape of Water. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The Shape of Water Doesn’t Rock the Boat

Pitching The Shape of Water as a parable is perfectly fine. Dark fantasy sounds more interesting than superhero saga.

It still needs to be a movie.

No director can match Guillermo Del Toro’s forte. His sweet spot is merging the pathos and thrills of a monster movie with shadowy film noir. Sadly, this “fable” is as beautiful as it is incomplete. The film ultimately carries no stakes. Both leads are walking, silent and literal Deus Ex Machinae that sink the entire movie.

Sally Hawkins is great in an Oscar-baiting performance. Elisa Esposito is a mute janitor in a top-secret Cold War research facility. As fable would have it, Elisa runs into “the asset,” (Doug Jones) an Abe Sapien redux, who’s really from the black lagoon instead of parts-unknown South America. Together these two misfits would find love without words ever having to be spoken. You know, because they can’t.

The graf above was tossed aside as Del Toro thought of a plot for the film. The concept of love being so powerful that words need not be spoken is a wonderfully true notion. It doesn’t carry in The Shape of Water. Are the only reasons these two wind up together is because both are outcasts? The power of love is love by default? That love conquers all because one is a god? One that requires a musical number to heighten the emotion of love? Especially when the point is about love being speechless? The script could’ve used another polish or three.

Richard Jenkins steals the film. Unrequited love hits the hardest and his ultimate rejection was the most human part in a story about humanity. He hasn’t had a gut-wrenching character since 2008’s Let Me In. The man can play heartbreak. Octavia Spencer is dependable as usual in roles that are beneath her grade (read: sassy service person). This is more an example of an actor wanting to work with a director, but still, keep cashing those checks.

Michael Shannon, oddly, has the juiciest role. It’s easy to see him mapping over a Gaston role if we’re talking fairy tales. But is Richard Strickland really the bad guy? Not even by woke standards. By simple modern standards we know Strickland is the antagonist, but by Cold War standards, he’s a normal guy who’s trying to live the American dream and cope with PTSD.

Using social themes as a means of conveyance instead of for dissection is a waste of story and character. I know Del Toro is really, really trying to convince us that Shape is a fable and the symbolism spackles holes, but this film would be stronger as a character study than cramming a square peg into a round hole.

Again, not a bad movie, just incomplete. Director of photography Dan Laustsen gives a clinic on light and shade and color. This film could be a painting. And has there been a score that Alexandre Desplat has done that hasn’t garnered a nomination. I’d put money that the streak continues. Shape will no doubt be compared to Pan’s Labyrinth for no other reason than phantasmagoric beasts. What a shame, because Shape is a watered-down version of what Del Toro is capable of.


JP Spence

JP Spence is a writer, screenwriter, and improviser living in Los Angeles. He previously served as the media critic for the Topanga Messenger and as Editor-In-Chief for the LA Valley Star. You can find Josh @JP_Spence on twitter or at any press screening.

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