In Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” the camera never stops moving. Even in the seemingly conventional scenes, there’s always a subtle jitter or a slow pan. This constant motion makes for a vibrant—yet inconsistent—film that is the very embodiment of good, but not great. While Del Toro has crafted a movie that is simultaneously ironic, schlocky and beautiful, it does have a few issues that hold the movie back.
“Shape of Water” is the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor at a classified Cold War government facility. When a captured gigantic, amphibious beast (Doug Jones) arrives, Elisa and the creature slowly fall in love. This element parallels a weirder, yet better version of the live action “Beauty and the Beast” that came out last March. There is a lot more going on, however, as Del Toro weaves in elements of the spy thriller genre, as well an ode to cinema itself (and that’s really where the schlock comes in).
But make no mistake, Del Toro is a great director and a master of genre: he has made everything from big action blockbusters (“Pacific Rim,” “Hellboy”) to gothic horror (“Crimson Peak”). More than any other genre, Del Toro loves dark fairy tales, which is most clearly displayed in his best movie, 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.” “Shape of Water” is a slightly worse version of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” another beautiful film about the triumph of “old” humanity against a faux-futuristic totalitarian force.
In fact, Del Toro practically reuses a “Pan’s Labyrinth” character in “Shape of Water”—the fascist Spanish captain in the former is resurrected in the latter as Michael Shannon, who gives a fantastic performance. Shannon plays Richard Strickland, the colonel assigned to oversee the merman, and he is downright terrifying. At the same time, Del Toro and Shannon have a lot of ironic fun at the expense of early sixties futurism and American exceptionalism, making Shannon into a genuinely great villain who also provides some laughs.
The acting is pretty top notch across the board. Sally Hawkins does some great voiceless work as Elisa in a very charming performance, and Doug Jones (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) successfully brings the amphibious man to life. Neither Hawkins nor Jones can talk, but both of their characters are endearing and sympathetic, which is a testament to the quality of their acting. That said, Hawkins did get too quirky for my taste, but perhaps that is more of a personal aversion. I would also love to give a special shout out to Michael Stuhlbarg, who gives a solid supporting performance as Dr. Hoffstetler, one of the lab’s scientists, but overall, it is definitely Shannon who steals the show.
Where the film falters is in its grand congratulation of cinema. A lot of “Shape of Water” is about giving a voice to those who cannot speak—be it the mute custodian or the amphibious monster. Del Toro argues that movies, especially old classic movies, can give a voice to the voiceless, however, he isn’t entirely convincing. While I agree that the 2017 movie “Shape of Water” gives a voice to unheard portion of society, the old-school Hollywood cinema which the film references was more interested in reinforcing traditional societal roles than it was in subverting them. Del Toro’s love for cinema is clear, and I doubt he would be a much of a master of genre without it, but so much of this movie feels like it is being devoted to sending up older film. The homages “Shape of Water” pays make it seem like Del Toro is looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses, and perhaps over-inflating the positive effects of film historically.
And yet, there is still a lot to like in this film. For example, I love the set up: in any other movie featuring the amphibious man, the main character would be some scientist or military member, but here, we’re following the cleaning crew. Furthermore, the movie looks amazing. There is so much texture in every shot: Del Toro compresses so much deep color into every frame that everything appears gorgeous. The camera is always moving, so there is a real exploration of the space that looks very pretty. Add to that a superb score that speaks when our protagonists cannot, and you have a film where a lot of the individual sequences are quite engaging and well done.
I worry that I am being too hard on “Shape of Water.” At the end of the day, it is a very good movie, but it does not quite reach the high bar set by “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which covers a lot of the same ground more effectively. “Shape of Water” is good: it has some fine performances and it looks phenomenal. It is just not great.