“He’s a wild creature. We can’t ask him to be anything else.” – Richard Jenkins as Giles, The Shape of Water (2017)
Dir: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones
The Shape of Water is a fantasy/drama set in the Cold War era and centered on mute custodian Elisa (Hawkins) who establishes a romantic connection with an “Amphibian Man” (Jones) who is being kept at the facility where she works. When outside forces threaten them, Elisa concocts a plan that might save the creature from a cruel and undeserved fate, even if it means their separation.
When I walked into the theater for Guillermo del Toro’s monster romance The Shape of Water, I fully expected to be putting it at #1 by the time the credits rolled. Perhaps this film suffered from over-hype, or perhaps set my expectation meter too high, but I found The Shape of Water a bit lacking beneath the surface. It’s a visual spectacle that subverts traditional tropes, a dreamlike tale of love, loss, and finding hope in the darkness, but the glossy sheen can’t quite mask that depth isn’t quite there.
For the record, I love weird shit and have always admired del Toro’s vision, so this film is right up my alley. The story is gripping, the stunning visuals create an immersive atmosphere well-suited to the narrative, the acting is on point and the characters are distinct and memorable, the monster himself is exceptional, and everything about this film screams both horror and beauty in equal measure. This film got the most Oscar noms out of any others in the competition, and all the buzz about it is totally deserved, but it doesn’t top my personal list for a few reasons.
Overall, I perceived a lot of the character motivations to be shallow, with the exception of Michael Stuhlbarg’s character (Hofstetter) and Michael Shannon’s villain (Strickland). I expected myself to be charmed by Elisa’s romance with the Amphibian Man, and I was invested in their development, but ultimately found it to be… lackluster. To me, Elisa came across as so desperately lonely she latched onto the misunderstood creature to cure that emptiness, and the Amphibian Man just kind of went with it. The two clearly forge a genuine connection over their mutual loneliness and “outsider” status, and they learn from one another and each undergoes changes because of the other, but it didn’t click for me the way it should have. The “song and dance” number near the end of the film also did not land – it took me out of the film entirely, and only made me feel like their romance was simply Elisa projecting her fantasies onto the Amphibian Man while he was merely infatuated with eggs. The ending of the film, however, redeemed their uneven bond somewhat in my mind. I also appreciated the exploration into the side characters – especially Hofstetter and Strickland, and Giles to some degree – but I think the wide-reaching focus and other plot threads, though compelling, came to the detriment of the main story.
But there is a lot to love about this film. Alexandre Desplat’s score is gorgeous, and a perfect supplement to the narrative and the characters. I’d love Zimmer to win for his contribution to Dunkirk, but I think Desplat will be taking another Oscar home this weekend. The writing and directing is another del Toro triumph, as he masterfully weaves a haunting, yet whimsical fairy-tale where the monster is a prince and the princess is an outcast, and a vile villain threatens them with the face of an ordinary man. The cinematography, sound, and other technical and visual aspects are all contenders – so many frames/stills from this movie stick in my mind for how striking they are – and I’m personally predicting it will win Production Design. On the acting front, Jenkins is superb as Giles, providing comic relief and contributing powerfully to the heart and the emotional conflict of the film… but I actually thought Shannon should have gotten the nod over him. He was fucking terrifying – more frightening than any monster or beast of lore could be. I felt ambivalent about Octavia Spencer – she’s great, as usual, but I’m not sure it’s Best Supporting Actress worthy. Hawkins is marvelous, expressing hope and heartbreak and emoting without being able to actually vocalize Elisa’s feelings, but I’ve got one actress on my ballot slated above her in the Best Actress race. Though if her name gets announced on Oscar night, I’ll be cheering.
When it comes to the array of awards The Shape of Water is nominated for, it’s more or less guaranteed to take home some hardware on the evening of March 4th. But when it comes to the ultimate prize, the esteemed Best Picture award, I’m not sure if this whimsical, monstrous dream of a tale will emerge victorious over the competition.
Best Director (del Toro)
Best Actress (Hawkins)
Best Supporting Actor (Jenkins)
Best Supporting Actress (Spencer)
Best Original Screenplay
Best Costume Design
Best Film Editing
Best Original Score
Best Production Design
Best Sound Mixing
Best Sound Editing