Hot Take: Guillermo del Toro is a visionary and Sally Hawkins is brilliant but there’s just something that keeps The Shape of Water from being great.
Currently, I rank The Shape of Water as the 16th best film of 2017. While that is nothing to sneeze at, The Shape of Water is expected to be nominated for Best Picture and some think it should win. It’s hard for me to get behind the notion. While The Shape of Water has a ton going for it, there’s something about it that just doesn’t quite make it feel worthy of such accolades. Sure, Guillermo del Toro is a brilliant director with amazing imagery but we’ve seen Beauty and the Beast before so the story at its core isn’t too fascinating. Even with a renewed mistrust of Russia thanks to recent political events, the added twist of a covert U.S. operation surrounding torturing an exotic find in a South American river during the Cold War in a Baltimore government facility just doesn’t, pardon the pun, completely hold water. It’s what you come to expect from del Toro who does dark fantasy so well but when thinking about it in terms of Oscar, it feels like it comes up just a bit short.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) was rendered mute from a neck injury suffered as an infant. She works as a janitor at a secret government facility in Baltimore in the early ’60s and lives alone in an apartment above an old movie theater. Her next door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a closeted gay man and her best friend and at work, she’s friends with Zelda (Octavia Spencer) who also acts as her interpreter. The secret facility receives a creature (Doug Jones) in a tank that appears to be a humanoid amphibian which the scientists at the facility want to study and the military, especially Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) who lost two fingers to the creature, want to dissect. Elisa befriends the creature while he is in the laboratory. She feeds him, plays him music and the two form a bond. Eventually, as time comes near for the lab to make its decision whether to kill it or not, Elisa decides to kidnap and eventually free the creature and must enlist the help of her friends to get the creature out.
As per usual, del Toro’s ability to craft fantastic fantasy is evident. The score from Alexandre Desplat is also amazing. The film contains a number of wonderful performances, most notably Hawkins as the mute Elisa. It would be unsurprising for The Shape of Water to have a buoyant presence come Oscar night. However, at least for this critic, when talking about Best Picture, there are a number of other films that have equal claim to one of the nominations and doesn’t even come close to making the conversation for the one that should win. It’s too heavy handed in its message and too in love with the creature to really explore any other viewpoint than how to save it from destruction. It feels more like propaganda than art even though the film is fictional. The love story between Elisa and the creature, though, is very believable and is what earns the film marks as high as it receives. I could easily see someone being infatuated with that aspect of the story to overlook some of the film’s other shortcomings.
That’s not to say that The Shape of Water isn’t worth seeing. It is. When differentiating between Best Picture-worthy or not, it’s not quite there.
Guillermo del Toro’s fantastic ability to make fantasy to feel like reality keeps you glued to the screen.
At its core, this feels like a tale as old as time… (Cue the music.)