Every now and then, a film comes along that seems to really enchant its audience, and here I am alone in the corner thinking, “OK, has everyone lost their minds, or what?” Such is the case with Guillermo Del Toro’s latest opus, The Shape of Water.
The film led the pack with seven Golden Globe nominations last Sunday, although it only won two, for original score and a directing nod for Del Toro. I thought it was a tad pretentious when he tried to dismiss the play-off music during his speech by saying, “It’s taken me 25 years to get here, give me a minute.” Greater men and women have waited longer, my friend! Is the implication that he’s deserved a major award since before 1997’s Mimic? Three long decades separated Martin Scorsese between Taxi Driver and 2006’s The Departed, which would earn him his first directing Oscar. When the moment finally arrived, did you hear Marty begging at the podium for more time?
I’m annoyed because I’m of the unpopular opinion that, despite its glossy finish, competent cast and admittedly inspired moments, ultimately, The Shape of Water isn’t a good movie.
Sally Hawkins stars as a mute janitor named Elisa. Across the hall, she’s a friend and ally to her queer neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a man with many cats and increasingly dwindling dreams.
Elisa works alongside her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) on the night shift at a murky government facility, the kind of place where bipedal fish monsters are wheeled in nonchalantly and under a shroud of secrecy. What’s the meaning of this merman (Doug Jones), who comes to us mysteriously from the rivers of the Amazon with slimy eyes, webbed hands and washboard abs? He’s got both lungs and gills—an important fact to keep in mind, as the greatness and limitations of his biology feature prominently in the movie’s long, boring plot progression. The Americans have got him for now, but what are they to do with him? Is he best used for further scientific observation, immediate torture at the hands of bellicose military types who hate change, or perhaps—wait for it—romance?
Michael Shannon enters as Richard Strickland, a hired security officer/goon tasked with transporting and then guarding the beast. It’s the 1960s, don’t forget (you won’t; the movie will repeatedly remind you). As such, we’re obsessed with beating the Russians to everything, which in this universe includes fish monster technology. Predictably, Shannon’s character doesn’t like guys with gills, considers the monster an aberration in God’s otherwise pristine plan and thinks “the asset” ought to be cattle prodded and then dissected. Contrast that with the will of Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who sees both scientific potential and humanity in the fish man, and so reasonably argues against his immediate execution. All the while, we’ve got this Cinderella-like janitor in Elisa, who sneaks in to see her merman night after night, until a weird and tender friendship begins to blossom between them.
Of course, there’s a lot to admire in the picture. Shannon and Stuhlbarg in particular are excellent, and I appreciate the rated R darkness that lurks in what could have otherwise been a straight-up children’s story. What I can’t forgive is how static and simplistic these characters are. The evildoers start out rotten and end that way, and it’s the same for our heroes. With no ambiguity, there’s nothing for my brain to do except passively watch these soggy characters as they wade to a predictable, saccharine conclusion. How am I so unmoved by this classic fable? Perhaps the only monster here is… me?
The Shape of Water opens at the Roxy Fri., Jan. 12.