MOVIE REVIEW: The Shape of Water

THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)


GOING IN

Guillermo del Toro makes gorgeous films. Whether it’s horror, comic book characters, live-action cartoon, or fantasy, the visual aspect of his movies is always a treat. Now he returns with his first straight fantasy since the much beloved Pan’s Labyrinth. Expectations are (understandably) very high for this story of a mute worker in a secret government lab who discovers what appears to be a merman, or the creature from the black lagoon. Set during the Cold War era, it won’t be surprising at all if someone tries to use this creature as a weapon. The film’s story is the kind of fantastical adventure that del Toro could do wonders with, and I expect a twist or two as well.


COMING OUT

Honestly, there is much to like about del Toro’s The Shape of Water. Sally Hawkins turns in an incredible, emotionally-driven silent performance as the mute protagonist Elisa Esposito. Her acting is noteworthy because so much of it requires facial expression and body language to convey nuanced changes in feeling. She is often acting opposite a creature that cannot communicate with her verbally and this results in an intriguing relationship as she sorts out ways to connect with him. It is the wide range of emotions she conveys that actually makes her stand out the most, though. At times tender and caring, other times sad and longing, and ultimately strong  and determined. Also turning in a great performance is Michael Shannon as the film’s antagonist, a cruel and abusive Colonel that discovered the creature (which he coldly refers to as an “asset”) and along with his superiors wants to dissect and study it for possible scientific advancement in space travel technology. Shannon owns this role of a villain and becomes easy to hate. It’s a top-notch portrayal of evil and there isn’t much complexity to his character – whether that’s for better or worse will depend on your taste.

Dan Lausten’s cinematography accents its mostly shadowy colors with moments of vivid color to highlight emotion. The whole film has a noir feel to it without ever being traditionally black and white. Since the majority of the story takes places inside of a bunker or apartment, there isn’t much sunlight in the picture, but it fits this dark fairy tale’s tone perfectly and at least gives the viewer something pretty to look at despite the film’s surprisingly violent content throughout. The creature design is unsurprisingly fantastic. He, of course, has some secrets to reveal and discovering what those were was interesting and eventually vital to the plot.

Where The Shape of Water doesn’t work is in the direction it takes with the relationship between Elisa and the creature. One of the first scenes we see is a fully exposed Hawkins pleasuring herself in the bathtub and that sets the tone for what is to come. Elisa is a woman who has sexual desires and conveying that is not a bad thing. However, del Toro’s method feels unnecessary and sets the tone for a disturbingly sexualized human/creature relationship. If you weren’t certain before, this is a very adult fairy tale, and this one underlying plot point can really derail the entire film for those who are turned off by it. Imagine for a moment if Beauty and the Beast’s love story included him remaining a Beast and the viewer was shown the two having a sexual relationship. What takes place in The Shape of Water is akin to that, minus a believable romance. Ultimately, the film does give the relationship some meaningful touches, with sacrifice and trust coming into play, but the overall path of it can be so off-putting that enjoying the film becomes impossible.

VERDICT

It’s too bad when a film is ruined by one particular choice. There was so much potential here for this to be an intriguing new dark fairy tale, but del Toro’s choice to sexualize a relationship that didn’t need it makes this a hard film to recommend to all viewers. The violence is more frequent than expected and also quite brutal at times, and there is no real hope of redemption for the villains. Despite a gorgeous aesthetic and score, these story elements made it difficult for me to enjoy and I’ll be a lot less likely to get excited about another del Toro adult fairy tale in the future because of it.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

What We Learned This Week: September 10-16

LESSON #1: DARREN ARONOFSKY IS AS AUDACIOUS AS THEY COME— Love or hate his films (and there is a lot there for both emotions), but Darren Aronofsky has cajones, talent, and personal integrity to make bold films his way and for his own artistic expression.  mother! is the latest chapter of a brazen filmography of NoahBlack SwanThe Wrestler, Fountain, Requiem for a Dream, and Pi.  The guy is operating at another level and uses a different elevator of crazy.  Recognize the skill through any love or hate you harbor to his films.

LESSON #2: GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S THE SHAPE OF WATER IS YOUR FIRST OSCAR CONTENDER— The master of creature creation’s romantic fantasy film won the prestigious Golden Lion award as the top film of the Venice Film Festival.  Put it at the top of the standings while it also competes at the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival.  If The Shape of Water were to win at TIFF, hot damn, you can switch the word from “contender” to “frontrunner.”  In other categories, Venice awarded its acting prizes to Kamel El Basha for The Insult and Charlotte Rampling for Hannah, its screenplay award to Martin McDonagh for Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, and the best director prize to Xavier Legrand for Custody.  Within the next week or two, I will report the TIFF winners in this very column.

LESSON #3: “WHITE PRIVILEGE” WILL BE THE MOST POLARIZING SUBJECT MATTER AND NARRATIVE THIS AWARDS SEASON— I screened and reviewed the Ben Stiller vehicle Brad’s Status this week and if I had to retitle the film, it would be White Privilege: The Wake-Up Call.  The movie has a strong introspective quality about it, but its message is going to fall on so many deaf ears to any demographic that’s not a middle-aged white male.  Consider that a crutch and a hindrance, even if the film was good.  I fear the same thing will happen to an even higher profile film this awards season, namely George Clooney’s Coen brothers collaboration Suburbicon.  Clooney was stumping for the film and Venice and found himself answering the sticky white privilege labels and questions.  To his great credit, he’s sticking to his guns about the purposeful satire and commentary of this film.  The film may work, but does that mean it will play that way to general or even voting audiences?  I’m betting the white privilege labels aren’t far behind for Alexander Payne’s Downsizing and even mother! too.

LESSON #4: PATTY JENKINS DESERVES THE SUCCESS COMING HER WAY— Warner Bros. made it official this week signing Patty Jenkins to return as the director of the Wonder Woman sequel.  The first film’s runaway success netted her a $7-9 million payday, the highest ever for a woman director, and a little percentage of the back-end profits for good measure.   Slowly but surely, the pay gap can and should close.  Patty Jenkins deserves this reward and I’m glad she’s one of the leaders for equal professional standards.  Kudos!

LESSON #5: THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO GET A FILM DONE RIGHT— I’ve talked in this column over the summer about the many news items of production ups-and-downs.  Instances include when Justice League called on Joss Whedon to step in for extensive reshoots or the dismissals of two different Star Wars directors.  This week, all signs point to J.J. Abrams returning to the director’s chair for Episode IX and delaying the film an additional seven months to reshuffle the deck.  On the smaller side, ace composer Johann Johannsson is leaving Blade Runner 2049 less than a month before its release.  We take those breaking stories as signs of trouble and possible evidence of a lemon to come.  We’ve been doing it in the internet age since Titanic was delayed from a July 4th weekend opening to Christmas in 1997.  Sometimes those fears become justified.  Maybe, just maybe though, the delays are the right moves to ensure a proper finished product.  Maybe a little more patience and extra time used to fine tune a film can finally win in the age of instant gratification, manic buzz, and “what have you done for me lately.”  We are a voracious audience sometimes, myself included, but maybe we can soften our Chicken Little-level overreactions.  Call this an early New Year’s resolution for this writer.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson.  He is also one of the founders and the current directors of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle.  As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Creators Media.

Episode 064: Pacific Rim

It’s Transformers week, so we’re covering an even better giant robot movie. Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is a love letter to the sandbox dreams of little kids everywhere, a passion project on a giant scale. But there is so much more to this film than just epic Jaeger vs. Kaiju battles. There’s heart, hope, and a heap of Idris Elba, which makes everything better. Tune in for a discussion as fun as the film itself.

What We’ve Been Up To – 0:02:13
(Aaron & Patrick – Friday Night Lights)

Pacific Rim Review – 0:14:37

The Connecting Point – 1:08:01

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Intro/Outro Music – “Air Hockey Saloon” by Chris Zabriskie

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