The Shape of Water is all about façades, and characters learning to embrace the difference that comes from maintaining said façades. This ranges from literal (Sally Hawkins’ mute custodian) to figurative (scientist Michael Stuhlbarg’s double life as a Russian spy) contexts; and as a theme, it’s the film’s most interesting and endearing. Take also, for instance: the closeted homosexual (Richard Jenkins) who eats at a nearby diner to chat up the young proprietor (who speaks in a canned accent mandated by the chain’s corporate overlords), and the sadistic government tool (Michael Shannon) who’s acquired an “asset” in the form of Doug Jones’ nameless anthropomorphic fish-man.
Doing his best in a typecast role, Shannon’s casually racist, ableist, and sexist character Richard Strickland nonetheless has his complexities: he purchases a new car based on a slick, subtly emasculating sales pitch; he’s shown as bitter toward his pastel-colored suburban existence (his wife is introduced and quickly dismissed as an air-headed sex receptacle); yet, in between torture sessions with the Fishman, he’s caught in a push-pull between empathetic scientists (presented as a bunch of pocket-protected dorks) and his military superiors (acting under the typical motives of weaponization and financial gain). That said, Strickland’s contempt for anybody beneath his clearance level is exemplified during his first encounter with Elisa (Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer): he enters the men’s room after they’ve just finished cleaning, and takes a hands-free piss at the urinal. It’s a testament to Shannon’s subtle acting skills that this could be read as macho obliviousness, or genuine disgust for the “low-level” women in his midst.
As a result, Strickland becomes the most reptilian character on-screen. But there’s nothing particularly innovative for Shannon to chew on, and it won’t make anybody forget his tightly-coiled performances in Nocturnal Animals, Take Shelter, or Bug.
What I’m saying is, I wish that Guillermo Del Toro (and co-writer Vanessa Taylor) had brought some different angles to all the other angles we’ve seen before for this type of character. Or, perhaps, put a lesser-known – or less obvious – actor in the role.
While Del Toro’s talents as a technical filmmaker sparkle here (from the idiosyncratic set design to the special effects), the characters often feel incongruous to the aesthetic landscape. This is an excellent group of performers, but the lack of definition driving some of the arcs (Spencer’s short-shrifted Zelda; Jenkins’ awkwardly introduced- and -motivated Giles) is disappointing, leading to scenes that conjure dramatic intensity but botch the emotional landing.
By comparison, Del Toro’s Crimson Peak (itself stuffed to the gills – pardon the pun – with nods to bygone filmmaking eras) did a better job of balancing technical flourish with an intriguing story, brought to life by well-rendered characters.
Paul D. Austerberry’s production design is wonderful, achieving a not-quite-earthbound quality that nonetheless roots the film in an idealized Hollywood vision of the 1960s. Ditto Dan Laustsen’s impeccable cinematography, whose warm hues create a classical feel that aids in the periodic triangulation of performance and story. These elements are executed with such painstaking regard for craft that I wished the story were stronger overall. (That said, as far as Oscar-nominated films with a strong whiff of nostalgia are concerned, it fares much better than La La Land.)
Which brings me to Water‘s ultimate redemption, and lynchpin for its worthiness as a date-night sojourn or a Netflix option in the near future: Sally Hawkins.
As Elisa, Hawkins puts the whole of her emotional and physical being into the performance. She finds herself isolated from humanity, but her empathetic feelings toward the Fishman awaken a sense of kinship and self-actualization. While the courtship between Elisa and the creature invokes a non-platonic version of the relationship between Dr. Logan and Bub in Day of the Dead (appreciation of music! communication skills! the “monster” can be “civilized”!), Hawkins radiates lust and longing. Jones, meanwhile, creates the type of malleable, expressionistic presence he’s excelled at in other Del Toro projects, including Pan’s Labyrinth.
Ideally, this romance would have been the centerpiece of Water: it’s the film that would have been stronger and, ultimately, more satisfying. But the sum total is a clutter of nostalgia (how about those old movie theaters with the opera-house architecture?), homage (The Creature from the Black Lagoon; the aforementioned Day of the Dead; even a flooded-bathroom scene that recalls the Hawkins-starring Paddington), period politics (Cold War paranoia), and standard “fish out of water” themes. Del Toro gorges his artistic appetite from all possible angles, but makes the strongest, most human elements secondary to all the visual candy.
Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: a generous 3 out of 5 stars