Fritz: With some movies, it's really hard to discuss them without getting into spoilers. How do you talk about Psycho without discussing its iconic scene/plot twist halfway through the movie? So it goes with co-writer/director Guillermo del Toro's new film The Shape of Water. There's plenty to talk about, but it's near impossible to have any substantial discussion about the film without delving into spoilers. So....you have been warned, dear readers. WE WILL BE DISCUSSING SPOILERS FOR THE SHAPE OF WATER BELOW. If you don't want spoilage, come back and read this review after you've seen the film.
Still here? OK. I warned you.
The film tells the story of a lonely, mute janitor at a government facility (Sally Hawkins) in the early 1960s. She lives with an older gay man (Richard Jenkins) and has only one real work friend (Octavia Spenser). Her life changes when a shadowy government agent (Michael Shannon) brings in a mysterious sea creature (Doug Jones) to be studied. Soon, Hawkins and the creature develop a connection that leads to her enlisting her friends to help spring the creature (alongside a principled scientist with a secret played by Michael Stuhlbarg). After the creature is freed, the relationship between Hawkins and the sea creature becomes sexual (yes, you read that right).
So...where do you begin when talking about this film, Dave?
David: Well, del Toro has never been a timid filmmaker and not shy about taking risks. He pushes the relationship between Hawkins and the creature further than most mainstream filmmakers would. At its core, The Shape of Water is a conventional story. In fact, it often reminds me of Ron Howard's mermaid comedy Splash (1984)...but it also kind of plays like Amélie (2001) meets Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial sprinkled in. Del Toro uses a monster movie template to examine prejudices against race and sexual lifestyle. What the director has created is an art film about a girl and a monster. Going to places we didn't expect is brave, yet at the same time this in the movie's main problem. All the elements don't quite gel together.
What did you think?
Fritz: It does feel scattered and overstuffed at times. But it has its strong points. The production design is marvelous. Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins give terrific performances. Jenkins' character's subplot paints an effectively heartbreaking portrait of how lonely life must have been for many gay men in the early 1960s. And as you say, it's not a timid film.
But it just as often misses the mark. The first hour was stronger for me. Once the human protagonists break the Amphibian Man free from the government testing facility, the emotional relationship between Eliza and the Amphibian Man stops developing. Their scenes together in the second half are largely sex-based and they stop being interesting once you get past the "wow, they're actually going there" factor. Another big flaw is Michael Shannon's villainous government agent. He is too cartoonishly evil, over-the-top and devoid of nuance. The movie seems to be trying so desperately to convince us he's pure evil that I wondered if there were deleted scenes of him shoving old ladies in front of buses or putting lit cigarettes out on kindergartners. Shannon's a good actor, but he's given a one-dimensional role here. On a less damaging note, Octavia Spenser does a fine job as Eliza's co-worker, but the role is just another variation of the sassy-but-principled African-American lady she tends to play.
Lastly (and here's another big spoiler coming), the script stumbles by revealing that the Amphibian Man has healing powers. As a result, there's no sense of danger in the climactic scene. What should be heart-stopping and poignant elicited a shrug from me because I knew Amphibian Man could just heal people.
David: Yeah, the inclusion of healing powers really deflates any suspense in the finale. However, like you said, it is a great looking film and it is well acted.
Ultimately, The Shape of Water doesn't work as a whole, bit it still has enough arresting moments (a black and white musical number!) for me to recommend it.
Fritz: Yes, and at the very least, it's a must for del Toro fans.