THE SHAPE OF WATER is a visually arresting film from visionary director Guillermo del Toro. It’s filled with an all-star cast and has an overarching theme that audiences can really identify with. But even with all that in its favor, THE SHAPE OF WATER was a very underwhelming experience for me.
The film follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor that works at a secret government installation in Baltimore in the 1960s. When the facility receives a mysterious amphibian creature (Doug Jones), Elisa plots to break it free from captivity with the help of her friends (Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer). But to free the creature, Elisa will need to free him from the grasp of Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).
The strongest element in THE SHAPE OF WATER is the acting. Every actor in this film is at their absolute best. Sally Hawkins is especially impressive as Elisa, and she is able to express so much with her eyes and body language that it’s very easy to forget that she’s mute. Michael Shannon, the film’s antagonist, embodies Richard Strickland with such intense that his character’s bottomless anger and rage are actually palpable. To offset this swell of intensity, Michael Stuhlbarg plays Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, a scientist that continuously butts heads with Strickland and advocates for a more humane treatment of the amphibian creature. Stuhlbarg’s portrayal is deeply nuanced, hiding a complex web of motivations beneath his thoughtfulness.
But as enjoyable as the acting was from the main characters, I actually thought the acting found in the film’s smaller roles was the most memorable. Richard Jenkins’s portrayal of Giles, Elisa’s gay neighbor, was heartbreaking in its sincerity. Giles is a lonely man, struggling to make ends meet as an artist and similarly struggling to find happiness and companionship in a time when being homosexual was socially unacceptable. Similarly, Octavia Spencer’s portrayal of Zelda, Elisa’s African-American coworker, was similarly affecting due to the treatment of her character at the hands of her husband, her employer, and society. Much like Elisa, Giles and Zelda are broken misfits that find comfort in each other while trying to survive in an increasingly hostile world.
In its essence, THE SHAPE OF WATER is about misfits. Everyone is this film is broken in some way, and the primary motivation of each character is to find some semblance of happiness. It makes for a cast that is easily identifiable to the audience, but it can’t hide the fact that the storyline is nothing new. Perhaps I expected more from Guillermo del Toro. The film feels whimsical, but it’s also very rooted in the feel of 1960s Americana. The film straddles the line between fantasy and reality, and the balancing act leaves the film with a world that doesn’t feel convincing or alive. The idea of a woman falling in love with an amphibian creature is certainly something from the mind of del Toro, but the film doesn’t bother to provide the audience with a reason to care about the romance it spends so much time building up.
My other problem with the film was that it felt like it was trying to be a commentary on too many things at once. It’s not enough that THE SHAPE OF WATER is a romance of star-crossed lovers. It also has subplots that focus on life as a gay man, African-American woman, and Soviet Russian spy in the 1960s. Furthermore, the film also shines a spotlight on sexual harassment, toxic workplace interactions, and the disgusting and boorish behavior of men in power. All of these subplots are powerful on their own, and well-deserving of their own full story. But in stretching to include them all waters them down and makes them feel incomplete. All these subplots just fizzle out, without any real resolution. Perhaps that’s indicative of life, but it left me deeply unsatisfied.
THE SHAPE OF WATER is the kind of film that I can deeply respect. The cinematography and direction is wonderful, and the acting is extremely well done. But at the same time, it just didn’t work for me. I wanted to adore this film. But instead, I feel like THE SHAPE OF WATER is a flawed film that is less than the sum of its parts.