As Above, So Below
Okay, let’s first get the obligatory Twitter joke out of the way: The Shape of Water is the best movie you’ll see all year about fish dicks.
That was fun, wasn’t it? It feels good to laugh. Now, let’s move on to the actual review of Guillermo del Toro’s latest fantasia. Set some time around the end of the Kennedy administration and suffused with period-intensive (or at least period-evocative) imagery, it is the story of Elisa, a mute woman who works the graveyard shift at a mysterious scientific facility in Baltimore. During the night, she does thankless, backbreaking menial labor; during the day, she leads a rich inner life to make up for her loneliness and despair. All this changes when the lab comes into possession of a bizarre amphibious creature; after showing it some kindness, she falls in love with it and contrives to help it escape back to the sea.
That’s about it, and it’s not really worth examining the actual story too closely beyond these simple premises. Like all of del Toro’s best work, The Shape of Water is a pure fantasy, a fairy tale that relies not on any kind of coherent narrative, but on the purity of its colors and tones and the depth of its emotional resonance. And that’s good, because its actual plot doesn’t withstand even a second of examination. Perhaps it’s crass to expect the story to make any sense; we clearly aren’t expected to for most of its running time. But there are moments where del Toro (who wrote as well as directed) seems to want to hedge his bets and have it both ways, so on those few occasions when we’re asked to pay a little too much attention to the nuts and bolts of the story, it feels like a bit of a cheat.
But anyone who brings up that particular objection — even if it’s me — will be accused of missing the point. So what’s the point? It’s much the same as it is in all of del Toro’s movies: a retelling and reconfiguration of his childhood Hollywood obsessions; a gorgeous visual evocation of bygone eras; a purely mythological sense of morality tied (sometimes awkwardly and sometimes beautifully) to moments of historical import; and always, always some of the most breathtaking and imaginative images you are likely to see in a movie of this import and expense. This has been the case with almost all of his work, with the exception of Pacific Rim which I haven’t seen because I have an allergy to giant robot-related entertainment; it works just fine no matter how many times and from how many angles he keeps going to the same well, so who am I to question the fact that it seems like we’ve seen all this before? And yet, and yet: there is something in the story, maybe more than a single something, that leaves me unsatisfied and more than a little restless. What is it, and is it my problem, or is it del Toro’s?
It’s certainly not the lead role; Elisa is played (by celebrated British actress Sally Hawkins) with great depth and tenderness in a performance that is meaningful and unforgettable. The same can’t be said for those around her, though; Octavia Spencer, as her friend and co-worker, is given a role that is the very definition of perfunctory, and Nick Searcy might as well be delivering his evil-general part via telegram. Michael Stuhlbarg is very fine as a Soviet deep agent, but Michael Shannon is given a very typically del Toro villain role, so cartoonishly over-the-top and purely, flawlessly evil that he might as well be tying Hawkins to a railroad track. And while there’s nothing really wrong with Richard Jenkins’ performance as Elisa’s closeted middle-age neighbor, his story is underdeveloped and unproductive, and since it doesn’t really add anything to the plot overall other than a pretty witless mechanic, it’s hard to tell why it gets so much attention on screen other than historically imprecise virtue-signalling. The fish man is a fish man, I don’t really know what we expect out of him. But Hawkins as Elisa is so appealing, so full of sorrow and hope, so deeply felt in the presence of other people who share even a little of her desires, that she carries the movie almost single-handedly.
It’s probably pointless to look for any, forgive me, depth of meaning in The Shape of Water. It’s as slight as tissue, and doesn’t even give us the courtesy of a moral the way that most fairy tales would, unless it’s “let people do what they want” or “everyone is equally human unless they’re bad or communist even if they’re a creepy sea monster” or “love conquers all”. Everyone’s part is drawn as starkly as a punchinello, and even when Shannon is given a moment of doubt and pain, it evaporates instantly so he can go back to threatening people with a cattle prod. There are a few stabs at making the story have some kind of period-specific resonance, but even del Toro admits in interviews that the setting was just a ruse to get people onto his particular visual wavelength, so if he doesn’t care, why should anyone else? This is a movie that is all style and no substance and not only knows it, but leans into it like a wall in a wind tunnel.
I’m afraid this review makes it seem I didn’t like The Shape of Water. But I did! I enjoyed almost every minute of it, and it’s easily one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in years; del Toro is the kind of stylist who can make boiling an egg into a cinematic statement. There was never a point where I felt unwelcome in his world, even when he goes wildly too far as in a creakily overextended Hollywood musical dance number. It’s just that…well, we’ve all been here before, haven’t we? If del Toro is satisfied merely honing and refining the impressive skills he already has, it’s not my place to blame him for not doing more. But the lack of ambition to go beyond sumptuous visual fantasy is the main reason that I think of him, as a filmmaker, the way I do: he is someone I can easily like very much, but he is never someone I can love.