Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Whatever Container It's In

Year: 2017
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon 
Run Time: 2 hours 3 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Guillermo del Toro is one of the few visionary directors we have on hand today, but he’s also one of the most inconsistent. I tend to abide by the rule of thumb that his Spanish-language work is stronger than his English films (Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone are masterpieces, whereas Crimson Peak or Pacific Rim are pretty but a bit empty-headed), but I was greatly intrigued by The Shape of Water, his quasi-remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. I must say that rule of thumb still applies, but it’s certainly an interesting beast that I’m excited to discuss.

And if there’s one thing del Toro knows a lot about, it’s interesting beasts.

So, the plot. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaning woman who works at an aerospace institute in a fairy tale vision of 1960’s Baltimore. When the scientists at work bring in their newest asset – an amphibious sea creature from South America (Doug Jones, who is not the Alabama senator, though I’m sure he wishes he had that on his CV instead of The Bye Bye Man) that they’re hoping will help them make major steps in the space race once they figure out how its breathing apparatus works – she begins to teach it sign language and they become fast friends… and maybe more.

When the Evil Scientist Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) decides to vivisect the creature, Elisa must face the loss of this new relationship with a creature that makes her feel less alien and alone in this world of people who look down on her, either for her lack of speech or the fact that she’s a woman. She is supported by her coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her aging painter neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), but she might just have to take action.

And I mean “action” in every sense of the word.

I don’t know what it is about this Oscar season. Normally I’m not a huge fan of big awards contenders in general so it shouldn't be surprising that I'm not feeling into it, but this slate of flicks seems tailor-made for my tastes. A non-AIDS/death related gay romance? A romance starring the Gill Man? A film bringing to life the story of The Room?! Don’t mind if I do! And yet I’m liking these films even less than normal. OK, I don’t think I’ll ever dislike anything as much as The Revenant or Birdman, but this year I’m kind of longing for a Her, or a Brooklyn, or even a The Descendants. Just something that doesn’t promise high genre heights yet still manages to evoke something quiet and engrossing. Meanwhile I’m stuck with empty promises of things I’ll love that end up delivering something messy and flawed, ultimately redeemable but impossible to fall head over heels in love with.

I at least enjoyed The Shape of Water more thoroughly than Call Me By Your Name, because del Toro is a consummate entertainer even when he’s operating in a lower gear. But this film fails so hard at delivering most of what it promises that when it hits one of its many truly great scenes, it just doesn’t have the punch you wish it did.

I think my biggest issue is that The Shape of Water is just a little bit – I hate to say it – twee. The easiest comparison that comes to mind is Amélie, another film that spins a grand fairy tale fantasy out of regular life. Del Toro has proven himself adept at that kind of thing before, but Pan’s Labyrinth is no Jean-Pierre Jeunet romp. The particular register he’s working in feels utterly alien, and the central romance suffers because of it.

Fairy tales have the ability to smooth the edges off the snags and quibbles of real life love (Prince Charming hardly ever knows the Princess for more than a week before they’re hitched), but del Toro’s instincts toward blending the epic fantasy with gritty, violent reality hobble his ability to do that.  And despite the stellar performances of both Hawkins (who whips up a dazzling internal life for a character who doesn’t speak a word) and Jones (whose posture is so utterly alien that you don’t for a second remember he’s a man in a suit), the script underserves them. Their romance is too rushed-through to evoke the huge swell of emotion the movie clearly wants you to feel toward the midpoint, and the characters are too whimsical to really take the stakes seriously, even when they are raised through the roof.

The amount of time it takes you to look at this caption is about the time the script devotes to their chemistry before tossing them into another movie entirely for about forty minutes.

But let's not pretend that there is not some terrific material at work in The Shape of Water, it just tends to be in the stuff circulating around the central relationship. The lead actors might be great, but their supporting players are even better. Well, I mean Octavia Spencer is doing her Octavia Spencer thing, and that's just dandy, but Richard Jenkins and Michael Shannon are pure magic.

Michael Shannon has made a habit of getting accolades for movies I don't really care to see, but he has more than won me over to his side here. The metaphor about his character (a white man with a hilariously perfect 50's suburban family) being the true monster here isn't particularly subtle, but boy does he sell it by being f**king scary. Every second he's onscreen pulses with nerve-shattering tension, and he has the audience wrapped around his little finger within two frames.

And then there's poor Richard Jenkins, who digs deep to unearth some raw loneliness in character as a gay man who has allowed himself to grow old hiding in the shadows and regrets letting his life and potential love pass him by. His character is probably the funniest, warmest presence in the film, but every three scenes or so he gets it into his head to rip out your heart with his bare hands and play the strings like a maestro of human misery.

The Shape of Water has a lot to say about alienation and loneliness, and those themes live and breathe in the performances even when they aren't present on the page. This is probably the best ensemble of the year, and the fact that they get to act out a story this weird on sets this sumptuous in their grotty glory, with cinematography this sleek and stunning is a small miracle. It doesn't come together quite enough for me to give it a wholehearted recommendation, but god damn can it draw some real beauty from its murky depths.

TL;DR: The Shape of Water is a gorgeous, well-acted film with clumsy script execution.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1165

1 comment:

  1. Yep. Turns out that instead of being overwhelmed, or underwhelmed, by this one, we just wound up whelmed. Kind of a bummer, but, B, that dance scene is dynamite.

    I do wish the movie had more sense as to how seriously we're supposed to treat it, tho. I mean, the flooding scene is, in itaeld, fine; but if you're going to do that, maybe let's not call attention to how it semi-realistically affects the property, since all you're doing is straddling the fence between realism and surrealism, and that's how you lose your pants. I have the same objection to the ending but more so.

    I did also like Jenkins. I like everybody, even yelly ol' Shannon.