Plot points of The Shape of Water will be discussed in this review.
As a work of visual art, The Shape of Water is among the most interesting films of the year: designed with an eye for detail and soaked through with a seawater green palette, director Guillermo del Toro has created a world both familiar and strange, perfect for his "adult fairy tale."* It's beautifully acted, with stirring performances from top to bottom. The score is lovely.
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As a work of dramatic art, however, The Shape of Water is utterly inert. The deck is mercilessly, remorselessly stacked in favor of its misfit heroes, their enemies bigots of every variety, their softhearted goals undeniably just. There is never any doubt who will win, or for whom we are supposed to cheer. It is uncomplicated and boring, an R-rated morality play that pretends its adult-oriented language and sexuality are a variety of sophistication. It is truly a fairy tale for adults: It's intellectually shallow, sure, but at least it's explicit.
Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute maid who works for some wing of the Military-Industrial Complex, lives alone above a movie theater. She looks after her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay, out-of-work ad man, and listens patiently to her chatty African-American coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Their lives are thrown into turmoil when Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) shows up with an amphibious lagoon monster (Doug Jones) he and scientist Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) hope could serve as the key to defeating the Soviets in the space race.
Elisa and Giles have a cute little life, watching song-and-dance numbers together on their TVs and studiously avoiding all the real-world unpleasantness of the 1960s—civil rights protests and the like. Hoffstetler is secretly a Soviet spy, hoping to free the monster for the good of Mother Russia and the sake of science.
Elisa is cartoonishly goodhearted and kind, dreamily dancing with herself while maintaining a wistful smile on her face. Strickland is cartoonishly villainous, first appearing before us in a literal black hat before betraying himself to be a bigot of various stripes: racist, sexist, and, perhaps worst of all, religious. Get this: He pees in front of Elisa and Zelda, standing there with his hands on his hips and going on about cleanliness. It's next to godliness, dontchaknow.
Indeed, all of those who oppose our heroes are grotesquely bad in some way. Hoffstetler's Russian handlers are bourgeois sellouts happy to sacrifice the amphibian monster, more interested in the cushy American life of abundance they have achieved in their assignment. Giles announces his affection for a pie salesman only to have the man recoil in horror at the thought of man-love and, in the same breath, yell at an African-American couple for daring to sit down at his counter. It's as though del Toro was afraid we wouldn't be repulsed enough by the homophobia; he had to throw racism in there to really drive home the point that Bigotry In All Its Forms Is Bad.
The Shape of Water is, as Alejandro G. Inarritu put it for Variety, "a film that loves, without conditions, the marginalized, the rejects, those beings that are ‘different' and have no voice." It's that "without conditions" that is the problem, a problem that, perversely, renders the supposed underdogs in this picture heavy favorites. There is, simply, no way that a filmmaker would make a man like Strickland or his boss, General Hoyt (Nick Searcy), the hero of this picture, no way that they could be allowed to win. The language of modern cinema demands that they lose.
Still, I owe The Shape of Water a debt of gratitude in some strange way. It has helped me understand why I am broken, a marginalized misfit in our cinematic discourse. Why do I feel compelled to seek out the heroism behind the villainy of our big screen foils? Perhaps it has something to do with the perverse reversal that dogs this film, the absurd way in which underdogs are rendered heavy favorites by the simplistic, moralizing storytelling in films like The Shape of Water.
After all, who am I supposed to find more appealing: the heavily favored mute traitor who floods** the apartment she rents from a kindly theater owner so she can have weird sex with a fish-man all while working with a Soviet spy to undermine American security? Or the underdog working stiff desperate to find someplace for his family to settle down, the one who accurately and humorously responds, "It's still Baltimore, Elaine: no one likes Baltimore" when his lovely, long-suffering wife suggests they could be happy in their new home?
Well, okay, fine: Sally Hawkins—who really is delightful as the doe-eyed Eliza—will always be more appealing than Evil Michael Shannon. But it's certainly more entertaining to sit there and construct a rationale to quietly root for Shannon's Strickland while we patiently wait for the heavy favorites to triumph yet again.
*Regardless of my issues with The Shape of Water, I do kind of hope it's a huge success if only because it serves as a perfect proof of concept that del Toro could make a bloody good Bioshock movie. From the watery aesthetic to the swings between cartoonish sweetness and ugly ultraviolence to the art deco designs of 1960s Baltimore, del Toro would be perfect for a video game set in a decaying underwater art deco with all the moral nuance that involves having to choose between murdering little girls in order to absorb their powers or saving them from harm and gaining slightly less power.
**She literally creates a mini-pool in her apartment. I could not watch this scene without thinking "Jesus, she's going to destroy this kindly old man's business with a mold infestation all so she can get her rocks off with the Creature from the Black Lagoon. What a selfish little git."