Guillermo del Toro defies expectations in a heartwarmingly strange film that showcases the masterful director’s inner imagination. While some of the narrative remains a cliche that borrows heavily from prior movies, the film is ultimately a celebration of cinema (which makes its premiere at the 74th Venice Film Festival appropriate). The cinematography does an excellent job of placing audiences within the 50s time period, while also establishing a creepy tone with unexpected (or too expected) “monsters.” Unfortunately, the film’s greatness is hampered by a multitude of winding subplots that have formulaic yet impactful ramifications on the main narrative.
Del Toro’s newest work proves that he greatly respects cinematic history. Richard Jenkins’ character honors prior icons of the silver screen. His interplay with Sally Hawkins’ protagonist is pivotal and grounds this fantastical romance in the glitzy auspices of film. In a twist, it is not Frankenstein or Dracula receiving respect in this romantic horror but more song and dance productions. These scenes also allow the audience to gradually compare the budding lovers with lovers of the golden age.
Michael Shannon revives his sinister side for another turn as the evil suit bent towards unholy ambitions. Shannon always thrives in roles that require an unnerving lust for power mixed with an unyielding adherence to natural law. The paradoxical combination is simply toxic. He is another repressed monster struggling to find solace through despicable displays of petty power. While the opening monologue basically confirms the whole movie’s biggest cliche, this cinematic sin can be overlooked for the film’s brilliant simplicity.
At its core, Guillermo has melded Beauty and the Beast, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and King Kong into his own creepy fairy tale. While billed as a romantic horror, the latter genre is definitely lacking. Most “scares” resemble thriller situations built up with the precise amount of tension.
The premise of the protagonist merely working as a janitor in a secret government building is fantastic. Octavia Spencer expertly plays off of Hawkins. She can be the voice of the voiceless in dealing in administration issues (which is utilized wonderfully at one point). Hawkins is the main star of the production. Her acting mettle was pushed to its limits in taking on a role that silenced her voice, thereby allowing her to focus on gestures and facial expressions to elicit responses.
The really big hindrance to the film’s artistic merit is the predictable ending and forced subplots. Early to mid-way through the film it clearly telegraphed how the film’s plot will resolve. While the subplots make smaller characters have weighty scenes, the array of inconsequential (yet socially relevant) material hampers the advancement of the story. This is a common pitfall experienced by many award season films, and I feel the narrative would benefit from a slightly slimmer cut.
Another drawback involves the design of the creature. It bares a striking resemblance to Abe Sapien from Hellboy. This choice even led the fan boys to speculate that the film would serve as a prequel to Hellboy (spoilers…it doesn’t). Thus, it appears that del Toro borrowed some design elements from his own prior films.
Overall, the Shape of Water is a great film that explores hefty social issues, while creating a fantasy-realism world for characters to explore.