The Shape of Water ★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I do hope they wore a condom, but fish sex is the least of the problems with this movie; I disliked it for many of the same reasons I disliked Pan's Labyrinth, a movie I found insipid that most people ate with a spoon, so the only real logical conclusion is that I'm not in GDT's target audience and nothing I say is going to have much value. That said, read on if you want.

The color and texture of the film are pleasing, revising the Universal Creature films with a more clinical, lived-in setting, and its premise isn't without merit; particularly if you take it at face value as a fairly simplistic fable, you can understand what del Toro is trying to do here, and indeed the theory of the film as it existed in my head from what I knew of it is appealing enough that I looked forward to sitting down with it. Fair enough, fairy tales have to have villains and to appeal to our reptilian base impulses; but generally, the forces of pure evil in the Grimm stories, for instance, have some believable connection to the world we know, which is what makes them terrifying. The Queen in Disney's Snow White is murderous and vile in ways that go infinitely beyond Michael Shannon's flaccid stereotype of a '50s dadbod, but she is also fascinating and vivid because in some strange way we understand her, or at least her underlying motivations (jealousy, fear of death, etc.) make sense to us even if their manifestations seem wild. But the person Shannon attempts to create here feels less like a human being than that animated character -- he is a walking piece of cardboard meant only to serve the purpose the screenplay has weakly laid out for him, and in the same way as the Snidley Whiplash-like stepfather in Pan's, he's meaninglessly evil just to give the audience a sense of violent righteousness against him. This is lazy writing both because Shannon's Tom-Hardy-in-The-Revenant-like caricature could easily have been rewritten as something resembling a complex character, which would have improved his interminable scenes in the film immeasurably, and because the entire ballet in which he takes part has very little purpose in the first place, an artificial and tiresomely conventional injection of plot that takes up most of the running time in a movie that's supposed to be about romance.

Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the classic example of a modern film that's forced to split itself uncomfortably between boring story obligations and the fanciful excitement of its love story, which is all anyone remembers about it anyway, because Hollywood and Screenplay Structure and all that mindnumbing trash, but in Gondry's film you really feel the development and the connection between the two lead characters. The Shape of Water has Sally Hawkins (who's splendid, admittedly, which is another reason to be mad Frances McDormand somehow walked away with that Academy Award this year) connecting with and falling for "the asset" so quickly we don't have any sort of time to catch up with her enough to find the story credible. Yes, we follow the obvious themes being pushed, that she's lonely and sexually frustrated and it's nice that the film is so progressive in the way it treats that, but the film's job is to convince us that the extremity of her behavior thereafter makes some sort of emotional sense, and it absolutely fails to do so despite its overlength, mostly because so much time has to be spent moving generic chess pieces around. In shooting for childlike wisdom del Toro grabs the sledgehammer and sits us down with a litany of Cold War clichés, pointless distractions and contrived obstacles -- what is Shannon if not a murderous version of the Evil Land Developer? -- so that we can be convinced of how serious and real all this is, but in the process he sacrifices the elegance and depth of the children's stories that genuinely endure.

When people began comparing this to Amelie and Her I realized that one of my big personal obstacles here, beyond that I'm not a great fan of genre films in general, is that deep down I have an issue with, as Elvis sang, one-sided love affairs. I don't have an issue with love depicted in parable form if I can feel it, but for the most part the onscreen couples that appeal to me are the ones that seem to have forged a bond through, I dunno, knowing each other, not handing eggs back and forth or being vaguely aware of each other's quirkiness or, in the case of Her, just being an excuse for a deeply immature man to parade around his own self-adoration. I gotta wonder, and I'm not trying to be mean at all here, but this vague cutesy "it is written" shit is what you think love looks like? Again, maybe I'm just not made for this kind of thing.